Migration agencies say returns programs are working as EU pushes to 'offshore' processing

EU leaders have vowed to move migrant processing out of their borders into “transit” countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Critics say this “offshoring” of migrant processing risks denying vulnerable people their rights. But the agencies involved argue these are the places where efficient processing is most important.

The number of migrants participating in “voluntary returns” programs fell significantly in 2017, but rose in “transit” countries, according to new figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Among the responses to the European refugee crisis since its peak in 2015, international aid agencies and governments have greatly expanded investment in returns and reintegration programs.

While the IOM’s assisted returns from Europe were down 38 percent from the previous year, those from East Africa and the Horn of Africa rose 69 percent and returns from West and Central Africa rose 42 percent. The biggest increase came from migrants accepting assisted return from South East and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where numbers rose 81 percent since 2016.

Since this data was collected, 2018 has seen a sharp rise in the returns program for migrants in Libya, according to an IOM spokesperson.

The EU has been a major investor in international collaborative returns programs. At a meeting in June, European Council ministers proposed further expanding the processing of migrants while in transit by building “disembarkation platforms” in North Africa and increasing its support for the Libyan coast guard.

The UN’s refugee agency says its returns program is crucial to ensuring humane options are made available to migrants, often in desperate situations. Critics argue that migrants are faced with little real choice when offered assistance to return to their countries of origin, and moving this processing to transit countries where they are already more vulnerable risks denying people the right to seek asylum

‘No such thing as a voluntary return’

There’s a huge difference between approaches to returns in “destination” countries such as those in Western Europe, and “transit” countries, such as Turkey or Libya, said Katie Kuschminder, a professor from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance in the Netherlands focusing on migration policy.

“Returns counseling is less about what options they have and more about getting people to accept that they need to return,” Kuschminder told WikiTribune“Within the academic perspective it’s very well established that this is not a voluntary choice.”

This raises particular issues in transit countries, where migrants are faced with the prospect of being returned to their country of origin only after being detained or if their circumstances are particularly desperate. NGOs such as Refugees International have repeatedly reported that migrants and refugees suffer widespread abuse during transit.

This vulnerability is why it’s so important for effective and humane returns programs to operate in transit countries, according to the IOM.

Five percent of those the IOM helped to return in 2017 were identified as being in vulnerable situations, including having been trafficked, compared with three percent in 2016. Again, this does not include returnees from Libya, where the IOM says migrants face “extreme insecurity,” including arbitrary arrest by non-state actors, indefinite detention, bonded labor and harassment.

The IOM also emphasizes it has greatly invested in reintegration assistance, providing economic and social assistance, and prioritizing psychological support for people who suffered traumatic experiences while in transit.

“We are embarking on a completely new approach to reintegration and we believe in it. It will take some time to build, and in cooperation with authorities in countries of origin and the local communities, we are already seeing promising developments,” said the IOM’s Eugenio Ambrosi, after the agency expanded its returns program in Libya with assistance from the EU.  

Expanding ‘offshoring’

In June 2016, the EU struck a deal to support the Libyan coast guard, which then expanded its work detaining migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The EU further expanded its support for the Libyan coast guard in July 2017 and reiterated its commitment to supporting the coast guard in June.

Aid workers have been highly critical of this deal, and the Libyan coast guard’s actions, with one senior coordinator from Médecins Sans Frontières (known in English as Doctors Without Borders) telling WikiTribune they’d seen Libyan coast guard ships detaining migrants miles outside of Libyan waters.

This deal has led many migrants to seek alternative routes to Europe, with many choosing the more dangerous route from North Africa to Italy, where there are fewer search and rescue organizations operating.

The EU’s agreement with Libya has also led to many more migrants accepting the IOM’s assistance with returning to their countries of origin, rather than face the risks of staying in Libya, a spokesperson told WikiTribune.

In November 2017, the EU agreed to help fund an expansion of the IOM’s returns program to account for this added pressure.

The EU Council’s proposal to create processing centers in transit countries is “troubling” said Kuschminder. She pointed out previous examples of this have been heavily criticized, such as Australia’s processing center on the island of Nauru, where conditions were deplored by the UN.

“There’s a lot of problems and concerns with such an approach, and I don’t think it can meet the standard of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, which set down the right to apply for asylum,” said Kuschminder

EU migration officials said on July 12 they will not “impose” the policy on their neighbors, but Germany, Italy and Austria have signaled their intent to jointly push ahead with the plan, with support from Council President Donald Tusk.

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