The return of irregular migrants, including unsuccessful asylum seekers, is a fundamental aspect of any immigration policy. It removes people who have no right to remain thus reinforcing credibility; frees up the asylum and immigration system for those who are entitled to enter and stay; deters further irregular entrants and stayers; and reduces costs associated with detention and social welfare.

At the same time any return programme should respect the rights and dignity of the migrants concerned. International law proscribes sending people back to a country where their life may be at risk, for example. Equally, forced return carries significant political, social and financial costs. Ideally irregular migrants should therefore return home voluntarily.

How can this be achieved?

A recent research project conducted by the University of Maastricht and supported by the Government of Australia and the International Organization for Migration explored the factors that encourage irregular migrants to return home voluntarily, drawing on the results of semi-structured interviews with 273 migrants in 15 countries of origin, transit and destination.

The key factors influencing the decision whether or not to return voluntarily were found to be conditions in the country of destination or transit; followed in order by individual factors; social factors; policy interventions; and lastly conditions in the origin country. Across these broad categories the following specific variables were found to be especially significant: the difficulty of finding employment, the challenges of life with irregular status, a desire to reunite with family at home, the opportunity to benefit from voluntary return programmes, and job prospects at home.

A number of questions emerge from these findings. One is why conditions in the destination or transit country were ranked as so much more influential on the decision whether or not to return voluntarily than those at home. The answer is probably that the respondents were largely economic migrants, leaving home for a better life rather than because of threats to their life.

Second, why despite very significant investment do formal assistance programmes figure relatively low in the list of factors influencing return? In some cases it is because respondents did not even know about these programmes. Mainly the answer is that these programmes do not offer sufficient financial or other support to determine decisions. They may facilitate the return process, and sway the decision, but alone they do not carry enough weight to drive a decision one way or another.

In which case, third, what is the scope for policy intervention in encouraging irregular migrants to return voluntarily? It is certainly striking that several of the key decision-making factors are beyond direct policy interventions, for example regarding individual and social factors. Others require sensitivity in implementation, for example that removing the ability to work or legal status appears to incentivize return. It is apparent that origin countries also have a responsibility, in providing job prospects at home.

More research is required, but this research at least makes clear that the decision whether or not to return voluntarily by irregular migrants is complex, and that there is only a limited role for direct policy intervention. What is more, just as important is to understand whether return is sustainable once it has taken place.

This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s People Move Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Dr Khalid Koser is Deputy Director and Academic Dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

Image: Life jackets used by migrants are seen left on two flotsams. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi.