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Increased Focus on Forced Return of Migrants and Asylum Seekers Puts Many in Peril

By Kathleen Newland and Brian Salant

From the United States, Germany, and Greece to Kenya, Iran, and the Dominican Republic, national governments in 2017 reinforced their determination to return unwelcome migrants and, in some cases, refugees to their countries of origin. As the political and economic costs of protracted or seemingly uncontrolled migration mounted, many migrants and refugees faced return to impoverished or violent homelands, such as Afghanistan, Haiti, and Somalia. In these countries and others, migrants returned to find economies, infrastructure, and public service systems frayed from years of war, natural disasters, or political mismanagement. Countless returnees have lived abroad for decades, and have lost their connection to local livelihood opportunities and social support networks. In some cases, they are returning to countries they barely know.

The return of migrants who have no legal right to stay in a country is the sovereign right of national governments and a legitimate means of managing migration, but in the past has often been implemented in a way that recognizes competing priorities, such as the capacity of origin countries to absorb returnees, the development impacts of a loss of remittances, the humanitarian case for family unity, and the dangers migrants would face in their homelands. In 2017, the space for such mitigating factors seems to have shrunk, even as return has been consolidated as a policy priority. The threat of return affected many categories of individuals outside their countries of origin, including registered refugees, failed asylum seekers, unauthorized immigrants, and people benefiting from Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States.

The mechanisms for carrying out returns varied by country and category of migrant, and by the degree of coercion involved. Some migrants received due process via a legal determination of their right to remain, while others were chased out through sometimes brutal campaigns that made little distinction among people of different status, as in the Dominican Republic where authorities have pushed out both Haitian immigrants and the native born of Haitian descent. Host-country governments employed inducements, threats, and public campaigns to persuade people to leave, often supplemented with forcible returns to illustrate the consequences of refusing.

Critically, some of these “coerced returns” may violate the central principle of nonrefoulement—the practice of not forcing people in need of protection to return to countries where their lives or liberty would be endangered—on which the global humanitarian protection system is founded. For example, Iran and Pakistan are pressuring Afghans in long-term displacement situations to return despite the increasing severity of the conflict in Afghanistan, where the security situation has deteriorated to its poorest levels since the United Nations began measuring in 2009.

Large-scale returns—whether voluntary or forced—put further pressures on countries already struggling to recover from conflict or natural disaster. In the United States, an uptick in enforcement by the Trump administration combined with the termination of TPS for some nationalities and phaseout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could leave countries of origin with the challenge of reintegrating large numbers of returned migrants—many of whom have lived abroad for decades. (For example, some 237,000 Salvadorans have TPS.) Further, the European Union signed an agreement with Afghanistan in October 2016 clearing the way for returns of failed asylum seekers. Germany, Sweden, and Finland also signed bilateral return agreements with Afghanistan. Numbers returned have been relatively small, however; Germany was expected to return about 10,000 Afghans in 2017.

Coercing Migrants to Return

Given the difficulty and prohibitive cost of physically deporting tens of thousands of people, host-country governments are employing a number of tactics to persuade migrants to leave. One approach is to establish “assisted voluntary return” (AVR) programs, often in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to motivate people to choose return. The programs provide transportation with some flexibility on timing of departure, and sometimes include a cash payment or in-kind assistance. Germany offers these inducements as well as predeparture and postarrival counselling to migrants who cooperate with return programs. IOM provided AVR assistance to 69,000 migrants in 2015 and 98,000 in 2016; the number was expected to rise further in 2017.

Such returns are deemed voluntary because the departure decision is made, often reluctantly, by the migrants themselves. However, most people in these programs face no alternative except eventual deportation, blurring the line between forced and voluntary return. In practice, research shows AVR programs have little effect on the decision to return; the benefits are used primarily by migrants who were planning to return in any case.

Afghan Returns from Iran and Pakistan

Coercion has played a key role in prompting Afghans to return en masse from Iran and Pakistan, each hosting roughly between 2 - 3 million Afghans. Particularly in Pakistan, waves of police extortion, arbitrary detention, and increased policing of border traffic have compelled many Afghans to leave. Most notably, Pakistani authorities have pushed Afghans to return by putting their legal status in limbo. In December 2015, the government stopped reissuing Afghans’ Proof of Registration documents. It most recently extended the documents’ expiration until the end of 2017, at which point all Afghans would be in irregular status, without rights and subject to deportation.

Returnees included both registered refugees and unauthorized migrants, many of whom have lived in the host country for decades. After Iran returned 444,000 unauthorized Afghan residents in 2016, it set a goal of returning 600,000 by the end of the 2017; as of December 2, 418,000 had left. In Pakistan, a government program to register 1 million Afghan residents, launched in July 2017, may have contributed to a slowdown in returns, but was seen by many as a prelude to stepped-up deportations. About 96,000 unregistered Afghans had been returned from Pakistan as of December 2. As for registered refugees, nearly 59,000 in total returned to Afghanistan in 2017—the majority hosted in Pakistan.

Afghans who return from abroad find a country that continues to be wracked by conflict. A September United Nations report noted 30 of 34 provinces were affected by forced displacement as a result of violence. Further, the disruption and destruction wrought by decades of war mean that returnees are likely to be displaced again inside the country.

Haitian Returns from the Dominican Republic

As with Afghans, Haitians living in the Dominican Republic have been coerced to return. From January through mid-October 2017, 70,000 citizens of Haiti and individuals of Haitian descent returned across the border. The Dominican Supreme Court in 2015 withdrew citizenship from 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, making them vulnerable to forcible return. Following the June 2015 deadline to re-register with Dominican authorities—an arduous procedure which required a passport and was therefore out of reach for those who had become stateless—the Dominican government increased pressure to return via deportations and threats of expulsion. Those with stable livelihoods in the Dominican Republic otherwise have little incentive to go to Haiti, a country still struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake and that lacked work opportunities even before that disaster.

In 2017, average monthly returns to Haiti decreased compared to the first 18 months of mass returns, from 8,900 to 7,800. However, the number of people claiming to have been deported, without officially being registered as deportees, increased by a monthly average of 35 percent over the same period. This may reflect increased enforcement efforts by Dominican authorities, who turned back at the border or removed approximately 13,500 Haitians in July 2017 alone. A month earlier, IOM opened the first Border Resource Center to assist retuning Haitians. In three years of returns, however, just 700 Haitians have received official IOM voluntary return assistance packages.

Many returnees were born in the Dominican Republic, and without knowledge of Haitian Creole or close contacts in Haiti, end up living in squalid camps along the border. Further, in October 2017, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance estimated more than 1.3 million people in Haiti faced food insecurity—a situation that may be exacerbated by mass returns. Beyond returns from the Dominican Republic, the United States has announced it will end TPS for 59,000 Haitians in July 2019, at which point Haitian TPS holders who have not returned will be subject to deportation.

Somali Returns from Kenya

In Somalia, the election of a Parliament in 2016 and a President in February 2017 brought hope that the situation might be stabilizing enough to allow the safe return of refugees from neighboring countries. Of these, Kenya hosts the largest number of Somalis—more than 300,000—and has had the most strained relationship with them. A 2013 raid by Islamist militants on a Nairobi shopping mall solidified public opinion in favor of return, and in 2016 Kenya announced it would close the massive Dadaab complex, the world’s largest refugee camp.

The refugees have faced pressure to opt for voluntary return, amid few viable alternatives. However, relatively few have been able to re-establish themselves in Somalia, which suffers from continuing violence, drought, and widespread famine and malnourishment. About 60,000 Somalis returned from Kenya between 2013 and 2016, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) planned for 50,000 returnees in 2017.

Larger Immigration and Security Challenges on the Horizon?

In 2017, governments across the world narrowed protection spaces for longstanding migrant populations with more or less established livelihoods. While many returns were considered “voluntary,” government pressure and threats of deportation contributed significantly to decisions to leave.

Policymakers justify the removal of these populations on the grounds of national security, economic protection of native populations, and the need to enforce strict immigration laws. By removing people to some of the world’s most fragile countries, however, host countries may in fact exacerbate economic and social instability in countries of origin—potentially setting up future irregular migration challenges over the long term.