Return migration – a regional perspective

A woman walks with her child on her back through an IDP camp near the town of Dollow, Somalia, on March 26, 2017. DRC Photo / Tobin Jones

Return migration – a regional perspective

May 9th, 2018. Written by: Esther Mwangi  - RMMS Policy Advisor and Analyst.

The current views on migration recognize that it not necessarily a linear activity with a migrant moving for a singular reason from one location to a new and permanent destination. Within the study of mixed migration, it is understood that patterns of movements are constantly shifting in response to a host of factors which reflect changes in individual and shared experiences of migrants. This can include the individual circumstance of the migrant, the environment of host country or community, better opportunities in another location, reunification, etc.[1] Migrants returning to their home country or where they started their migration journey – known as return migration—is an integral component of migration.

Return migration is defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the act or process of going back to the point of departure[2]. It varies from spontaneous, voluntary, voluntary assisted and deportation/forced return. This can also include cyclical/seasonal return, return from short or long term migration, and repatriation. Such can be voluntary where the migrant spontaneously returns or assisted where they benefit from administrative, logistical, financial and reintegration support. Voluntary return includes workers returning home at the end of their labour arrangements, students upon completion of their studies, refugees and asylum seekers undertaking voluntary repatriation either spontaneously or with humanitarian assistance and migrants returning to their areas of origin after residency abroad. [3] Return migration can also be forced where migrants are compelled by an administrative or judicial act to return to their country of origin. Forced returns include the deportation of failed asylum seekers and people who have violated migration laws in the host country.

Where supported by appropriate policies and implementation and a rights-based approach, return migration can beneficial to the migrant, the country of origin and the host country. Migrants who successfully return to their country of origin stand to benefit from reunification with family, state protection and the possibility of better career opportunities owing to advanced skills acquired abroad. For the country of origin, the transfer of skills acquired by migrants abroad, reverse ‘brain drain’, and transactional linkages (i.e. business partnerships) can bring about positive change. The host country benefits from such returns by enhancing strengthened ties and partnerships with through return migrants. However, it is critical to note that return migration should not be viewed as a ‘solution’ to migration or a pretext to arbitrarily send migrants back to their home country. Return migration should be studied as a way to provide positive and safe options for people on the move. 

Return migration in East Africa

The number of people engaging in return migration globally and in the Horn of Africa and Yemen sub-region has steadily increased in recent years. In 2016, IOM facilitated voluntary return of 98,403 persons worldwide through its assisted voluntary return and re-integration programs versus 69,540 assisted in 2015. Between December 2014 and December 2017, 76,589 refugees and asylum seekers were assisted by humanitarian organisations to return to Somalia from Kenya.

In contexts such as Somalia, where conflict, insecurity and climate change are common drivers for movement (in addition to other push and pull factors), successful return and integration of refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring countries is likely to be frustrated by the failure to adequately address such drivers before undertaking returns. In a report titled ‘Not Time To Go Home: Unsustainable returns of refugees to Somalia, Amnesty International highlights ongoing conflict and insecurity in Somalia even as the governments of Kenya and Somali and humanitarian agencies continue to support return programs. The United Nations has cautioned that South and Central parts of Somalia are not ready for large scale returns in the current situation with over 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country and at least half of the population in need of humanitarian assistance; painting a picture of returns to a country where safety, security and dignity of returnees cannot be guaranteed.

In March 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ordered all undocumented migrants to regularize their status in the Kingdom giving them a 90-day amnesty after which they would face sanctions including deportations. IOM estimates that 150,000 Ethiopians returned to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia between March 2017 and April 2018. Since the end of the amnesty period in November 2017, the number of returns to Ethiopia increased drastically with approximately 2,800 migrants being deported to Ethiopia each week. Saudi Arabia also returned 9,563 Yemeni migrants who included migrants who were no longer able to meet residency requirements. Saudi Arabia also forcibly returned 21,405 Somali migrants between June and December 2017.

Migrant deportations from Saudi Arabia are often conducted in conditions that violate human rights with migrants from Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia reporting violations. An RMMS report titled ‘The Letter of the Law: Regular and irregular migration in Saudi Arabia in a context of rapid change’ details violations which include unlawful detention prior to deportation, physical assault and torture, denial of food and confiscation of personal property. There were reports of arrest and detention upon arrival of Ethiopian migrants who had been deported from Saudi Arabia in 2013 during which the migrants were reportedly tortured by Ethiopian security forces. 

Further to this, the sustainability of such returns has also been questioned with reports of returnees settling in IDP camps instead of going back to their areas of origin. Such returnees are vulnerable to (further) irregular migration given the inability to integrate. Somali refugee returnees from Kenya face issues upon return to a volatile situation in Somalia, often settling in IDP camps in Somalia.  In an RMMS research paper ‘Blinded by Hope: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Ethiopian Migrants’, community members in parts of Ethiopia expressed concerns that a large number of returnees from Saudi Arabia would migrate soon after their return. 

In November 2017, following media reports of African migrants in Libya being subjected to human rights abuses including slavery, governments, humanitarian agencies and regional economic communities embarked on repatriating vulnerable migrants from Libya. African Union committed to facilitating the repatriation of 20,000 nationals of its member states within a period of six weeks. African Union, its member states and humanitarian agencies facilitated the return of 17,000 migrants in 2017 and a further 14,000 between January and March 2018.[4]

What next?

Return migration can play an important role for migrants, their communities, and their countries, yet there is a lack of research and data on this phenomenon. For successful return migration, the drivers to migration should first be examined, including in the case of forced displacement or irregular migration. Additionally, legal pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration should be expanded for all countries to reduce further unsafe migration. Objective 21 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Draft Rev 1) calls upon member states to ‘cooperate in facilitating dignified and sustainable return, readmission and reintegration’.

In addition, a legal and policy framework facilitating safe and sustainable returns should be implemented by host countries and countries of origin. This could build on bilateral or regional agreements on readmissions, creation of reception and integration agencies for large scale returns, the recognition and assurance of migrant legal status, provision of identification documents where needed, amending national laws to allow for dual citizenship, reviewing taxes imposed on the diaspora, recognition of academic and vocational skills acquired abroad, support to vulnerable returnees, financial assistance where needed, incentives to returnee entrepreneurs, programs on attracting highly skilled returnees. Any frameworks should recognize that people have the right to move, and should have their human rights and dignity upheld at all stages of the migration journey.   


[2]Return Migration is “the act or process of going back to the point of departure. This could be within the territorial boundaries of a country, as in the case of returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) and demobilized combatants; or between a host country (either transit or destination) and a country of origin, as in the case of migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, and qualified nationals. There are subcategories of return which can describe the way the return is implemented, e.g. voluntary, forced, assisted and spontaneous return; as well as sub-categories which describe who is participating in the return, e.g. repatriation (for refugees).https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/return-migration-0 accessed on 15 April 2018.

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