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An Ethical Approach to Refugee Returns

In the second in a two-part series on paying refugees to leave, researcher Mollie Gerver outlines the four pillars of ethical policy for the return of asylum seekers to their countries of origin.

Written by Mollie Gerver Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A plane that will be used to deport rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan at the airport in Munich, Germany. MATTHIAS BALK/DPA

Faced with roughly 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all Syrian refugees could apply for asylum locally. “We can do it!” she announced.

But a year later, amid criticism of this policy, the chancellor introduced schemes to encourage asylum seekers to leave, providing them with between 300 euros and 1,200 euros ($350-$1,400) to return home. Far from being alone in taking this approach, the German government is part of a broader global trend with similar programs.

Paying people to leave may seem preferable at first glance to deporting them, but it does not mean the tactic is ethical. An ethical approach to returns is possible but must take the following factors into account:

1. Returns must be voluntary

To ensure that returns are truly voluntary, governments should ensure that refugees are granted their rights under international law. Such was the case in Denmark, where the government paid refugees over $18,000 if they left, but allowed them to keep their residency permits if they stayed.

Moreover, asylum seekers should not be paid to leave before their applications are completed, as is currently the practice in Germany. Under Germany’s program, asylum seekers can receive money to withdraw their asylum application before a decision has been made. As a result, some genuine refugees may return to avoid the risk of deportation in the future.

2. Returns should be reversible

Even when returns are truly voluntary, refugees may be risking their lives by repatriating. It seems wrong for public institutions to encourage individuals to risk their lives, however voluntary the choice may be.

It would be wrong, for example, if a hospital paid some patients to leave earlier, risking their lives in the process but creating a less-crowded hospital for those who wished to stay. No hospital should adopt such a policy, because hospitals are tasked with treating the patients within their walls. Government are tasked with protecting the residents within their borders, and so should ensure that returns are as safe as possible.

One way to enhance safety is to allow refugees to re-enter the host country in the event of an emergency, as was done in the 1990s when Sweden, France and the United Kingdom provided funds to Bosnian refugees to travel to Bosnia, allowing them to re-enter Sweden, France and the U.K. if they were unsafe after returning. On a more limited scale, the U.N. organized “go-and-see” visits for Burundian refugees in Tanzania, providing them payments to repatriate, along with transport for those who wanted to later re-enter Tanzania.

Such a policy is rare in today’s political climate. Under Germany’s program, those returning to Afghanistan sometimes find their lives under threat after returning, but have no method of again entering German territory. Those returning under the U.K.’s return program similarly have no way of re-entering U.K. territory if their lives are again at risk.

3. Returns should be informed

In the 1990s the German government told Bosnian refugees they would receive housing and employment assistance upon return, relying on information from official Bosnian government sources. None of these services materialized upon return.

In 2005, the U.N. Refugee Agency told Afghan refugees in Iran that it was safe to return based on existing reports from Afghanistan. After return, refugees immediately faced violent attacks on the border. Three years later, the International Organization for Migration in Norway told refugees returning to Iraq that there were income-generating activities, but most faced severe food insecurity and homelessness after returning.

When governments pay refugees and asylum seekers to return, they should evaluate the success of these returns, interviewing those who have already returned. This should involve not merely calling up refugees who have returned, as refugees who fled after returning may not have phones, and those killed will not answer. Instead, governments should interview acquaintances of returnees, and speak with family members of returnees, establishing the likely mortality rate, rate of displacement and rate of food insecurity amongst returning populations. They should then inform refugees yet to return about the risks of doing so.

4. Returns should be respectful

Even when governments pay refugees to leave voluntarily, safely, and with full information, they may still be deeply offending the refugees they pay.

Consider the Danish payment scheme. Though the Danish government ensured refugees were returning voluntarily, it also encouraged refugees to return, essentially sending refugees a message: “We want you to leave so much,” the payments implied, “that we are willing to invest over $18,000 per person to get you to leave.”

The more money a government offers refugees to leave, the more it is communicating just how much it is willing to sacrifice valuable resources to fulfill xenophobic preferences. For this reason, the British Nationalist Party – an openly xenophobic party – was willing to give $78,000 to each refugee repatriating in 2010, far more than the less xenophobic parties actually elected.

When governments provide money to leave, they should present the money not as a bribe but as an opportunity. This is possible if refugees are welcomed into society as equals and encouraged to stay, rather than viewed as outsiders, and encouraged to leave. These policy guidelines may be insufficient but they are necessary. If governments insist on paying refugees to leave, they should give them the respect they deserve, the information they seek and the safety they require.

Read the first part of this series: The Growing Popularity of Paying Refugees to Go Away

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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