Dear Asylum-Seekers: Beware “Voluntary” Return

Don’t Waive Your Rights

Update: Journalists like these at WaPo should be wary of taking IOM at its word. Unless you really want to plunge into a philosophical debate on the meaning of the world “voluntary.”

It’s hot and you’re scared. You’ve been traveling for months with your children as part of a migrant caravan to get to the United States. The organizers of the caravan told you it would be a free, safe, legal way to get your family to the US border, where you could claim asylum through the proper channels.

But now that you’re here, everyone is saying that there will be no asylum in the US after all. Rumors are spreading that you will have to wait in Mexico, maybe for years. People are saying that the caravan was a mistake, it’s too high profile and no one will get asylum because the US government has closed the border. Others are talking about going back and trying to get to the US by a different, quieter route. You hear that there are international organizations that will pay you money, a lot of money, to go back. Maybe once you are home, you can use this money to pay a real smuggler to take you across the border.

Someone directs you towards a tent. Inside, a kind woman tells you she cannot help you with your asylum claim. The US is not going to let you in and the Mexican government may not let you stay here. But if you sign this piece of paper, you will get money and a free flight back to your country. And, even better, if you stay there for three months, you will get yet more money. And then she holds out a piece of paper for you to sign…

This morning I woke up to a WaPo article about the voluntary return of migrants to Central American countries from Mexico. The reporter seemed shocked that people might “choose to return” after traveling so far to claim asylum. She did not seem aware of the fact that money is changing hands.

The problems with paid return programs are well documented and stretch back years. Many people accept the money planning to use it to help them migrate again, perhaps along a different route. Yet key pieces of information about programs for central American migrants are not widely known. How much money are migrants being given? After being deported, how many actually stay long term, in their countries? Such information does not appear in public reports. Ok so fine, you might think, people are being paid to go back. So what?

But when you accept “voluntary return,” you may be waiving your right to make a future asylum claim. Is this risk clear to asylum-seekers at the US border?

Why Go Back?

“They make the decision (to return) for a variety of reasons,” said Ivonne Aguirre, a program coordinator with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is assisting migrants with returning home. “Some have sick relatives, some miss their families, some are surprised by the conditions here, which are not what they imagined.”

Notice she didn’t say anything about money.

In Eastern Europe, I have met migrants who have been deported from Western Europe multiple times through return programs, using the grant money to pay smugglers to take them back over and over again. They will keep trying because there is nothing for them at home, or they have a job waiting for them in Germany or Sweden. This process is fueling a multi-billion dollar smuggling industry run by international criminal cartels.

How much money do migrants get paid to go back? This is difficult information to get, but in West Africa it’s $300 to get on the plane and possibly another $1,000 if you stay in your country for 3 months following your deportation. In Greece and Niger, international agencies are just cogs in the wheels of a multi-million dollar interception, detention and deportation program used to stop people from reaching the EU. Obviously, these programs must look very attractive to the US government right about now. But note that return programs only account for a fraction of the true cost of deportation.

The Problem with “Voluntary Returns”

What does all this mean for people facing tough decisions? Know that when you choose to take part in an deportation process, your information is being logged with agencies and possibly shared with governments. Agencies have stepped up their cooperation with biometrics screening and you will probably be registered as part of “assisted return.” How will this information be used in the future?

Every person in the migrant caravan should be aware of the following:

“IOM provides technical assistance to government officials and trains them to assess, improve and upgrade their migration management operational systems, for example in the areas of travel document issuance, data systems development and border management technologies, including data
capture and biometrics.
It implements programmes to facilitate the assisted voluntary return of unsuccessful asylum seekers, stranded persons and other migrants, and to support their reintegration in their countries of origin, with due regard for the needs of the migrants themselves and the concerns of local communities.”

In essence, by agreeing to voluntary return before you have had a chance to claim asylum, you may be waiving your right to asylum in the future. Asylum courts have in the past stated that voluntary return to your country of origin weakens an asylum claim. Because of this, make no mistake, being deported could jeopardize any asylum claim you might try to make in the future. If your return is logged and shared with governments, it could be used as proof that you do not merit asylum.

In Europe, the EU is aggressively using fingerprints and facial recognition software to identify and remove repeat asylum-seekers, people’s whose claims have already been rejected. I am not sure how information on “assisted returns” will be used in first time asylum claims.

Maybe a smart journalist can go and uncover this information.

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