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Repatriation programmes for asylum seekers do not contribute to development in countries of origin

Written by  Graziella Runchina Thursday, 13 November 2014 13:36
It is not justified and is even misleading to suggest that repatriation programmes for rejected asylum seekers contribute to development in the country of origin. This is the core of the research that Marieke van Houte did for her thesis, entitled Moving Back or Moving Forward? Return migration after conflict. On 20 November, she will receive her PhD from Maastricht University.
 
The PhD candidate investigated how much truth there is in the assumptions underlying the widely prevailing notion that rejected asylum seekers and migrants without valid residence permits will contribute to development and peace building in their country of origin after they have returned.
 

Politically sensitive

Van Houte realises that her conclusion is sensitive in light of the political debate on migration. “My thesis shows that there is a big difference between the rationale behind the allocation of development budgets and the actual development potential of return migrants. Policy makers are aware of the discrepancy between policy and reality, but are pragmatic about it. The notion that rejected asylum seekers go on to contribute to development helps explain this politically sensitive issue to a wide audience. Also, non-governmental organisations representing the interests of migrants have in recent years been increasingly more involved in ‘sustainable’ return, in order to actually be able to mean something for those who have to repatriate. But this is not without risk. Returned asylum seekers who encounter a much less rosy situation than what was described to them become disappointed and angry. That can create a destabilising situation that undermines the purpose of this policy. It is better to create realistic expectations about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of repatriation. My recommendation is, therefore, to stop calling involuntary repatriation development and to no longer pay for it out of development budgets.”
 

Life cycle

In her research, Van Houte examined the complexity of migration and return, based on the life cycle of repatriated migrants. In the first phase of her study in 2007/08, she worked with a team of researchers to perform comparative research among 178 return migrants in six very different countries around the world that have experienced repatriation after major conflicts (i.e. Afghanistan, Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Togo and Vietnam). For the second phase in 2012, she spent two months in Afghanistan conducting a case study among 35 return migrants, delving deeper into the patterns that were identified in the comparative study.
 

Noteworthy

The conclusions drawn in her thesis are noteworthy. “The optimistic mantra in the policies of many European countries, including the Netherlands, is that migrants who return home after conflict will contribute to development and peace-building in their country of origin. These host countries want to stimulate the return of rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants by offering return provisions, paid from the development cooperation budgets. However, my conclusion is that the groups on which that development money (in the form of return assistence) is spent do not contribute to development and peace-building in their country of origin.”
 

Return assistence

“Despite the fact that this does not happen”, continues Van Houte, “host countries like the Netherlands still want the groups to repatriate. Giving return assistence—which can be up to several thousand euros per person—can help convince people to repatriate. From this viewpoint, however, it should not be paid with development money, but from the Security and Justice or Interior Relations budgets,” proposes the PhD candidate.
 

Voluntary returnees

“The only returnees who may meet any expectations of development and peace-building are the migrants who voluntarily return—people who, in spite of having permanent residence status, choose to go back. This is relatively a very small group,” says Van Houte of the situation as she witnessed in Afghanistan, for instance. “These are often migrants from a higher socioeconomic class who had the opportunity to leave at an early stage in the conflict. They benefited from opportunities to work and study in Europe and returned at a time that they chose. With optimism, energy, and a pro-active attitude, they put a bit of added value back into the conflict-torn Afghan society.”
 

Modest origins

This is in contrast to rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who do not return voluntarily. They are often from more modest origins, and were either not able to leave until later in the conflict or arrived in Europe after being on the road for years. This group has lower chances of receiving a refugee status. “Instead, they live as asylum seekers or migrants without valid residence permits and with limited rights in the host country before being involuntarily repatriated, often poorer than when they started off. The assistence they receive upon departure usually fails to cover the cost of the return journey, let alone provide any extra they can use to build something when they return.”
 

Resilience and drive

Since her master’s programme in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, Van Houte has been fascinated by the resilience of migrants from conflict areas and their drive for making the best of life. “One way or another, I have always been touched by this issue.”
 
After a job at Stichting Vluchteling(Refugee Foundation), she went to work as a researcher in the field of migration, first at Radboud University and then at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, where she worked on her thesis.
 

University of Oxford

Currently, the social scientist is living in Paris where she is working on a research project for the OECD on the link between migration and development. “As a temporary consultant, I help with the analysis of qualitative data”, she says. “From January next year, I'm going to do research at the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute.”



On Thursday 20 November Marieke van Houte will defend her dissertation ‘Moving Back or Moving Forward? Return migration after conflict’.








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