The conference on “Assisted voluntary return and reintegration: strategy of EU Member States and European coordination” took place in Paris on 21 June 2022, and aimed to share knowledge, experience and views among representations from the EMN Member and Observer Countries, EU institutions and international organisations on challenges and solutions to promote assisted voluntary return in an effort to better manage migration in the EU.
The conference was opened by Christelle Caporali-Petit (Coordinator of EMN France) and by Guillaume Mordant (Head of the Department of Statistics, Studies and Documentation, General Directorate for Foreign Nationals in France, Ministry of the Interior) who highlighted the importance of inter-government collaboration and information or practices, to implementing and promoting effective assisted voluntary return and to better manage migration. In addition, Claude d’Harcourt (General Director, General Directorate for Foreign Nationals in France, Ministry of the Interior, France) reminded also that to be effective, return operations must acknowledge and address the social dimension of any return, which was primarily an individual experience. The person concerned should be supported to consider return as an opportunity instead of the result of a failing migration experience.
The first panel sought to provide an overview of the EU’s political and financial framework for voluntary return with Mari Juritsch (Return Coordinator, DG HOME, European Commission) opening the discussion by emphasising the importance of the EU Return Coordinator whose purpose is to improve operational coordination among the European Commission, EU Member States and Frontex. Followed Alexander Smits (Policy Advisor, DG HOME, European Commission) which recalled that AMIF (2020-2027) funds are available to support return initiatives both at EU and National level. Michele Amedeo (Deputy Head of Unit, DG NEAR, European Commission) stressed instead that return policies require openness to increase results, and remarked that returns are to be intended not only from EU countries to non-EU countries, but also from non-EU countries to other non-EU countries (e.g. from countries in the Western Balkans to their countries of origin).
Stine Hyldekjaer (Policy Advisor, DG INTPA, European Commission) stressed that under the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), programmes were supported to ensure synergies and complementarity among return, reintegration and development initiatives and that the implementation of programmes relies on effective referral systems in return countries, and on building local capacities as a means to foster local ownership.
The second panel reviewed recent EU and national initiatives to reinforce the delivery of voluntary return and reintegration assistance.
Dries Lensen (Senior Coordinating Officer, European Centre for Returns Division, Frontex) reassured that Frontex will continue to support EU Member States by establishing cooperations with third countries on returns, concluding agreements with partners for providing reintegration through the Joint Reintegration Services (JRS) and establishing return profiles within the standing corps operating across all return-related professions including counselling and engaging with third countries. Continuing the topic of reintegration counselling Alexander Smits (Policy Advisor, DG Home, European Commission) explained that this service will be facilitated by the use of the Reintegration Assistance Tool (RIAT) along with the other JRS services, and emphasised the importance of RIAT in the collection, monitoring and evaluation of voluntary return and reintegration data.
Ruben Laurijssens (Senior Programme Manager, ERRIN,) highlighted the results achieved by the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN) succeeding in implementing over 21 000 returns since 2018 and stressed the importance of giving space to new initiatives, ensuring grassroots support by working with local community organisations and building commitments with the authorities of the country of return.
Peter Neelen (Senior Programme Manager, Return and Reintegration Facility) explained the Reintegration and Return Facility (RRF), which activities are complementary to the one offered by Frontex, will continue to offer support to develop and implement projects, by delivering grants or serving as a service provider.
Fabrice Blanchard (Deputy General Director, French Office of Immigration and Integration - OFII) gave us an overview of OFII’s reintegration support activities which consist in providing social reintegration, employment and vocational training, and business schemes. She emphasized that in order to ensure efficient support a harmonised approach among Member States and the support of return countries is crucial.
Rocío González Blázquez (Head of Section, Sub-directorate General for Emergency and Migration Centers, Secretariat of State for Migration, Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, Spain) explained that voluntary return projects from Spain were managed by NGOs or by IOM, mostly targeting Spanish-speaking countries. Also in Germany, Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programmes are developed in cooperation with the IOM, and Maximilian Kirchner (Return Policy, Reporting, Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Germany) emphasised that the programmes are structured with customised, case-specific information available in different languages. As in Spain, Matěj Urban (Voluntary Returns Unit, Department for Asylum and Migration Policy, Ministry of the Interior, Czech Republic) shared that voluntary return support is provided in collaboration with NGOs including cooperation with consular missions in third countries.
In the third panel, the discussion focused on challenges and practices in promoting voluntary return.
Martin Stiller (Legal Associate, EMN Austria) started by presenting the main findings of the EMN inform on incentives and motives for voluntary departure, published in July 2022, and brought the attention to the fact that incentives are sometimes not attractive enough to outweigh the benefits of remaining, and that motives to (not) depart are not systematically recorded by Member Countries, stressing that although extremely important, these motives are largely not taken into account in the design of AVRR programmes.
Jeroen Vandekerckhove (Project Officer, International Unit, FEDASIL, Belgium) in explaining how the ‘Reach Out’ project was set up in partnership between France and Belgium to improve contacts with elusive third-country nationals, said that the main challenge encountered was gaining the trust of actors operating with this target group, Médecins Sans Frontières and how crucial it is to employ intercultural mediators that can do the necessary preparatory work to build trust with the beneficiaries. Elusive third-country nationals are also a problem in Switzerland, as explained by Lucien Engelberts (Directorate International Affairs, State Secretariat for Migration, Federal Department of Justice and Police, Switzerland) in the recent reform that sought to reduce the length of the asylum procedure to 21 days. The reform was successful and the average stay in reception centres decreased from 142 to 52 days.
Svetlana Velimirovic (Deputy Commissioner, Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, Serbia) explained that in Serbia however the number of voluntary returns remained low, largely because Serbia is a transit country, thus most irregularly staying third-country nationals would drop out of the counselling support before it concluded.
Michele Anne Vennat (Senior Programme Manager, Seefar) highlighted that psychosocial support is essential for effective return and reintegration, as anxiety, depression and other trauma symptoms are very common among returnees. Access to livelihoods did not really affect the reintegration experience, although it affected the likelihood of re-emigration. From this evidence, it seems pivotal to invest in psychosocial support, as well as in testing, monitoring, evaluating and adequately readjusting reintegration assistance.
The last panel explored promising practices to boost the sustainability of reintegration support.
Fabrice Blanchard (Deputy General Director, OFII) highlighted that among the most successful factors implemented in the AVRR programme delivered by France the enhancement of the returnee's skills and abilities, the guarantee of support from the family, and the positive impact on the family. As explained by Thomas Péguy (Deputy Director of Immigration, Return, Reintegration and International Affairs, OFII, France) which indicated that programmes focusing on South-to-South reintegration can help in reducing migratory flows in the Schengen, other elements that contributed to the success of their programs were cooperation with the authorities of the transit countries and authorities in third countries and the provision of financial resources by the European Commission. Niina Lääperi (Ministry of the Interior, Finland) has found it essential to tailor the programme to the local reality and individual needs. In Armenia, Haykanush Chobanyan (Head of Return and Reintegration Division, Migration Service of Armenia) highlighted the importance of ensuring local ownership over the reintegration process, focusing on the coordination of local and international stakeholders.
Nehed Rajhi (General Director, Office for Tunisian nationals abroad (OTE)) presented the national scheme for the socio-economic reintegration of Tunisian nationals, explaining that to facilitate the return and reintegration of Tunisian nationals, an office for Tunisian nationals abroad (Office des Tunisiens à l'Étranger, OTE) has been set up to provide information and support to those who wish to return to Tunisia. Assistance is provided through the various programmes available and includes support for health, employment and education.
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