The Myth of Voluntary Deportations – “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” from Greece, January 2018

The number of people who agree to “voluntary” return from Greece to their country of origin with the programme of “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” of the “International Organization for Migration” (IOM) is significantly higher than the number of deportations to Turkey since the EU-Turkey statement.

What happens to migrants who sign up for the IOM return programme during the process and after the return to their home countries? Why do asylum seekers agree to leave Europe again?

The observation of several cases reveals that many migrants face detention and serious physical and mental harm during and after their participation in the programme of “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration”.

Photo: IOM Greece

AVRR in Theory – Safety and Dignity

In June 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Greece launched a programme of so-called “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” (AVRR), aiming to return migrants from Greece to their countries of origin.

IOM facilitates returns of asylum seekers from Europe back to their home countries even if they are still in an ongoing asylum procedure. The official purpose of the programme is “to provide them with the opportunity to return to their country of origin with safety and dignity” according to the Annual Report 2016/17 of IOM Greece.

The programme seems to run successfully: Since it was introduced in Greece in June 2016 until the end of December 2017, 9.089 persons have been returned from Greece to their countries of origin through the voluntary return programme.[1]

In the same period “only” about 2.100 people have been forcibly deported to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal and the Greek-Turkish readmission agreement. The majority of returnees are Pakistani citizens, followed by Georgians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and Iranians.

AVRR is strongly supported by the European Union: 75% of the programme is funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the European Union (AMIF)  and 25% by the Hellenic Ministry of Interior. The European Commission frequently pushes to extend the capacities of the programme and to provide incentives to send more people back to their countries of origin on a supposedly voluntary basis.

AVRR in Practice – Detention and Maltreatment

In reality, the treatment of people participating in the AVRR programme is far from the declared “safety and dignity”.  On Lesvos, returnees have to sign an agreement with IOM before their return, discharging the organization from any responsibilities, stating

“that in the event of personal injury or death during and /or after […] participation in the IOM project, neither IOM, nor any other participating agency or government can in any way be held liable or responsible.”

Voluntary Return Declaration, photographed by a participant of the IOM return programme on Lesvos

It is therefore not surprising that many people are actually exposed to strong violence after deciding to “voluntarily” return to their home country.

On the Greek islands, the majority of returnees are immediately detained in pre-removal centers within the so-called “hotspot camps” after signing the IOM agreement. Some of them have already been detained prior to agreeing to “voluntarily” return.

After weeks to months in the prison section, the so-called “beneficiaries” of the IOM programme are taken to the mainland by ferry, where they are again detained in one of the six pre-removal prisons (Amygdaleza, Corinth, Drama Paranesti, Orestiada, Tavros Petrou Ralli, or Xanthi). There again, they have to wait weeks or months for their returns. In some cases, their phones and personal belongings are confiscated during the detention period.

In detention, terrible living conditions and police brutality are no exception. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly categorized the detention conditions in Greece’s prisons as degrading treatment and despite reform promises, there are still deaths occurring in migration prisons, e.g. due to refused medical treatment.

The Pre-Removal Detention Centre in Moria Camp, Lesvos

The cruelty of the AVRR practice becomes obvious in individual experiences of migrants who participated in the programme:

Abdul (name changed) has been detained for over three months in the pre-removal section of Moria Camp on Lesvos Island – solely based on his nationality.  As an Algerian citizen and therefore member of a nationality with low recognition rate for international protection, he has to undergo a special fast-track procedure with only minimal chances of being recognized. To finally escape the hopeless situation in the detention centre, Abdul decided to participate in the AVRR programme. A few days after he signed up for “voluntary return”, the police raided the detention section. Although Abdul did neither commit a crime nor break any rule, his container was searched, he was severely beaten and denied access to a shower, was not allowed to change clothes for three days and his phone was confiscated.

Gabriel (name changed) had been stuck on Lesvos Island for six months. Facing the terrible conditions on Lesvos, living in a flimsy summer tent in the approaching winter 2016/17, and affected by the continuous violence in the camp, he decided to “voluntarily” return to his home country Ethiopia. Back in Ethiopia, he hoped to be able to receive a visa to continue his studies as engineer in the USA. Trapped on Lesvos, he was not able to access the US embassy located in Athens.

A few weeks after agreeing to voluntary return, Gabriel was suddenly arrested. He reported:

“The police arrested me and another group of men. After a while they tied two of us together and put us on a ferry. We all were ‘voluntary returns’, but they treated us like robbers. During the journey, they refused to give us food. […] We were not even allowed to sit alone on the toilet, if someone needed to go to the toilet, the other guy who was tied to him had to enter the toilet, too, and sit beside.”

After his arrival in Athens, Gabriel was transferred to the pre-removal prison Amygdaleza in a police bus where he stayed for two weeks until his lawyer called the IOM and obtained his transfer to a closed camp where Gabriel waited for his flight to Ethiopia. He described the reality of life in Amygdaleza:

“Those who had a calling card called the IOM officers [to ask] about their process but most prisoners didn’t have anything, there were refugees who had waited for more than 6 months but didn’t get any answer from IOM. They were supposed to leave Greece within two days and return to their home country with IOM but it took them more than six months. There was a food strike every day but no one cared. There was a big number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi. None of them could manage to return home, they finally heard from the police that IOM was waiting until they were enough to fill two planes. Many of them got crazy.”

Yard Exercise in Corinth Pre-Removal Centre. Photo: Waseem Abbas

Other people also have to experience that – while they are already been detained – they cannot be returned to their home countries with the IOM programme. They are stuck in a devastating limbo, unable to go forward and unable to go back.

Adnan (name changed) from Pakistan signed up for AVRR after a few months on Lesvos. His chances to get a refugee status were low, he missed his children and wife and desperately needed to find work to re-pay the debts his family had made for his journey to Europe. After a few months of waiting on Lesvos, he was transferred to Amygdaleza pre-removal centre close to Athens. He was kept there for five months without being informed about his procedure or when he could return to Pakistan. Finally, he was sent back to Lesvos: The embassy of his home country had not accepted him as citizen and refused to issue traveling document for him.

Cell in the Pre-Removal Centre in Corinth, Greece. Photo: Waseem Abbas

After the Return – A Continuous Chain of Imprisonment

The chain of imprisonment and abuse often continues in the returnee’s home countries.

People who have been returned to Pakistan report that they were immediately arrested at the airport. They were threatened to be detained for around 10-20 days and after this sentenced by court for an additional 2-3 months for illegally leaving Pakistan, if they refused to pay a fine of around 10.000 – 30.000 Pakistani rupees (about 70-220 €). When returnees were convicted by a judge, they have to pay a similar amount or stay in prison. This way, returnees have to hand over the major part of their 500 Euro “reintegration money” from the AVRR programme directly to the Pakistani police. See also: Assessment of migration deals by Utrecht University

Similar situations are created in other countries: The family of a person who “voluntarily returned” to Iran, was reportedly forced by the authorities to pay several thousands of Euros bribe to prevent the imprisonment of their son.

For some people, participating in the AVRR programme can not only lead to imprisonment but endangers their life: Gabriel had fled his country as activist in the political opposition and member from a persecuted ethnic minority.  Before he gave up his right to claim asylum and decided to sign up for the IOM programme he stated:

“I’ve decided to go back to Ethiopia. I know I could be put in prison and be tortured, but I’m in a prison here and people are dying in this prison too.”

See also report by the Legal Centre Lesbos.

When he was finally deported from Athens to Ethiopia, his prediction became true. He reported:

“After I arrived, I spent six hours with my family. Then two men came with a pick up to our place. They put a gun on my head, forced me in a car and brought me to an underground place. They took my papers, asked me endless questions, hit and tortured me. I stayed in this place for two weeks.”

The tortures convinced him that he would be assassinated but finally he was released and managed to flee the country again to save his life.

What drives people to agreeing to “voluntary” return to their countries of origin?

There are a number of reasons why the AVRR programme is considered as a “success” and attracts large numbers of participants – despite the harsh realities for the deportees.

Moria Camp in Winter 2016/17. Photo: Knut Bry/Tinagent

1. The General situation on the islands and prolonged asylum procedures

Asylum seekers on the Greek Islands face inhuman living conditions in the so-called “hotspot camps”. They suffer from the lack of decent shelter, sufficient food and decent hygiene facilities. On the Greek mainland, the conditions are similarly precarious in many places. These conditions push asylum seekers to give up their right to claim international protection and return to their home countries.

The asylum procedure is lengthy and tiring and the success chances are very low – especially under the so-called “fast-track border procedure” implemented on the Greek Islands since the EU-Turkey statement. Some asylum seekers have been stuck on the islands since March 18th 2016 with pending asylum applications. Furthermore there are serious doubts about the quality, transparency and fairness of the decisions of the Greek Asylum Service and the European Asylum Support Office. A large number of asylum seekers are rejected despite the certainty that they will face persecution in their home countries.

If an asylum seeker’s claim is rejected or declared inadmissible, the person can either appeal the negative decision or return with the AVRR programme. In the case of an appeal, they will most likely be deported to Turkey as the rate of acceptance in appeal is lower than 1%.  So in most cases, people have to accept to sign up for the so-called “voluntary return” as their only option to escape the deportation to Turkey or an even longer period of detention.

2. Detainees can shorten their detention period

Among migrants who are held in detention, AVRR is considered as a method to shorten their detention period. In April 2017, many people were arrested in a sweeping police operation on Lesvos Island. Everyone among them who had not applied for asylum so far was given two choices: Either to apply for asylum and remain in jail until the decision of the application – which can take more than one year – or to sign up for “voluntary” return and to be freed. As result, many of the arrested people decided to agree “voluntary” return.

Some detainees in the pre-removal centre of Moria Camp reported that IOM staff would repeatedly visit the detention centre and “offer” desperate migrants to sign up for the AVRR-programme.

3. It is the only way to avoid detention in Turkey

Even if migrants are not actively coerced to return, AVRR is often their only solution to avoid detention in Turkish removal-centres. People whose asylum applications are rejected and who do not apply for AVRR will be deported to Turkey. Back in Turkey, all non-Syrians (and some Syrians) are transferred to closed detention centres where they can officially be kept up to 12 months. The detention conditions are even worse than in Greece and many detainees have reported abuses by prison guards. Access to legal or other support is very limited.  As Turkey has only signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees with a geographic restriction, only European citizen can claim asylum. Syrians can at least be granted “temporary protection” – but are often unable to access decent living conditions and are forced into exploitative labour conditions. Members of other nationalities can apply for international protection with the UNHCR in theory, however, non-Syrians are most likely to be detained and eventually deported to their home countries: According to the European Commission, since the EU-Turkey agreement came into force, only two out of all Non-Syrian deportees have been granted a protection status in Turkey, 57 people are still waiting for the decision, 10 people have been rejected and 831 have been deported without being able or willing to claim asylum.  In several cases, detainees are forced to sign return papers.

4. Returnees are provided with small cash incentives

Returnees under the AVRR programme are provided with about 500 to 1.000 € before they return and are promised to be provided additional “reintegration”-money upon arrival in their country of origin. However, in some cases returnees have been waiting for months without receiving their reintegration assistance money in their home countries and some had to spend the money they receive in Greece to pay a fine to their local authorities.

Conclusion – Desperate Returns

In the context of the EU-Turkey statement and its consequences, signing up for “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” is in most cases a desperate decision.

Moria Camp in November 2017
Toilet in the “Hotspot Camp” Moria on Lesvos. Photo: Ken Nix

Many people are literally broken by the unbearable living conditions in Europe’s refugee camps and by an asylum procedure lacking core standards of fairness to apply for IOM’s return programme. Despite having serious fears to return to their home countries, people are signing up for AVRR, which gives an idea of the living conditions in the EU camps.

Once migrants have signed the agreement, IOM and other participating states and agencies seem to consider themselves discharged from the responsibility for the returnee’s well-being.

Many people signing up for the AVRR programme experience nothing close to a “safe and dignified” return. Before their return, they are treated as badly as deportees: transported in handcuffs, held in detention and affected by violence in the pre-removal centers. Back in their home countries, many returnees are again exposed to detention, exploitation and the persecution they fled from seeking safety and a decent life in Europe.

[1] see report: The implementation of Assisted Voluntary Returns including Reintegration Measures (AVRR). IOM-Office in Greece. December 2017.