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Managing Migrant Return through 'Voluntariness'

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - REvolTURN (Managing Migrant Return through 'Voluntariness')

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2020-09-30

The fundamental weakness of nation state and EU efforts to effectively manage migration to Europe lies in ensuring the return of foreigners who pass or avoid border controls but are then neither granted asylum nor a (renewal of their) residence permit. The significant gap between the number of migrants who are officially ordered to return, and that of confirmed departures, strikingly reflects liberal states’ limited capacity to make unwanted foreigners leave their territory. Faced with this problem, many governments rely on public policies for the so-called “voluntary return” of irregular migrants and (refused) asylum seekers. These policies work in tandem with those for the forced removal (deportation) of the same group of people from or between EU Member States. Among scholars it is widely acknowledged that what governments thereby present as “assisted voluntary return (AVR)” is usually not underpinned by genuine voluntariness and leaves very little room for migrant agency and decision-making. Through this research project I wanted to further substantiate and go beyond this claim by investigating the complex role that the politics of voluntary return plays within the Austrian and British return regimes.
My research provides important insights into how these approaches work in practice and points out ways to ensure that they are in line with official policy goals, ethical standards, and human rights legislation. The project had three objectives: Firstly, to better understand the role and functioning of voluntariness in the context of state-managed migratory return, thereby contributing to recent scholarship on the in/effectiveness of migration policies, the agency of implementing actors and of migrants holding no or highly precarious statuses. Secondly, to develop a framework for analysing, assessing and comparing such policies with regard to both their effectiveness and legitimacy. Thirdly, to contribute to evidence-based and workable policy solutions that allow for genuinely voluntary returns without undermining the very logic underlying this highly contested approach to unwanted migration.
My close and comparative analysis of AVR policies in the two countries focused on the positions and perspectives of various kinds of implementing actors. In particular, I became interested in the complex and changing role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing return-specific advice and counselling. My comparative analysis shows how the recent shift from NGO to state provision of AVR counselling in the UK (2015/16) and in Austria (ongoing) affects the production of voluntariness and the meaning that different actors attach to this principle. Based on detailed empirical evidence including ethnographic insights into the provision of return counselling in Austria and in collaboration with a colleague working in the Netherlands, I have also highlighted the significant variation in how individual return counsellors perceive and (ab)use their own role in relation to their clients’ potential return and aspirations. Together with a colleague from the University of Innsbruck, I have used data from this and a previous research project to provide a theoretical explanation of how and why even social workers become part of a “hostile environment” for irregular migrants and start collaborating with the (British) return regime.
The project also allowed me to start linking my own and others’ analyses of the policies and practices of “voluntary return” with critical research on voluntary work with or for refugees, in order to contribute to broader theoretical debates around the governmentality of migration control. What makes “voluntariness” such a crucial element in contemporary migration governance, is that framing certain aspects or instances of it as voluntary can help governments to overcome some of the inherent limitations of state control over unwanted immigration. By giving me the opportunity to conduct this research and engage in the necessary exchanges with other scholars, this fellowship will have an important impact on my career as international scholar and researcher.
The first months of the project were dedicated to planning and preparation of my research. I developed a Career Development Plan and Data Management Plan, and refined the aims, underlying concepts, and methodological approach of my study. Other activities included the successful application for approval by the Ethics Committee of the University of Vienna and concrete preparations for my fieldwork Vienna and London. In the second part of project phase I started my initially desk-based data collection and comparative analysis of the legal frameworks and policy discourses around migrants’ “voluntary return” from Austria and the UK.
This informed my subsequent fieldwork in Vienna (April to August 2019) and London (September 2019 to January 2020). In each context I conducted around 30 in-depth qualitative interviews with a range of relevant actors including policy makers, representatives of IOM and various NGOs working in this field, as well as migrants with no or precarious legal status and thus facing a potential return. I also volunteered for independent migrant support organisations in both cities. In Austria, the accounts of my interviews (including several return counsellors) were complemented through non-participant observation of several hours of return counselling sessions at two (state-funded) counselling organisations. Already during the fieldwork phase I started disseminating and discussing preliminary findings at several workshops and academic conferences, whereby I co-organised three dedicated panels (one of which could not take place due to the cancellation of a conference).
In the final phase of the project, I fully focussed on writing academic articles on specific aspects of my findings, thereby fostering collaborations across geographical and disciplinary boundaries. A first working paper I co-authored with Laura Cleton (University of Antwerp) was published in the IMI Working Paper Series (University of Amsterdam); a revised version is currently under review for publication in the Journal for Ethnic and Migration Studies. We also contributed to round table discussion and blog series published (online) by Open Democracy. Together with Pierre Monforte (University of Leicester) and Rachel Humphris (Queen Mary University of London) I am co-editing a Special Themed Section that has recently been accepted for publication (in spring 2022, pending individual review) in the Journal Migration and Society.
In addition to the contributions that this research will make to academic debates, the insights and knowledge it generated will also be relevant for people involved in the making and future reform of AVR policies. At the same time, an improved understanding of ‘voluntariness’ that allows to at least conceptually distinguish ‘voluntary return’ from deportation will also help individual citizens and organised civil society to more effectively engage in political debates around migration, asylum and return.