The fiction of migration control policies
Voluntary return programmes
by Peio M. Aerbe - Mugak/Sos Racismo
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On 4 June, the Migrations, Refugees and Population commission of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly released the report: "Voluntary return programmes: an effective, humane and cost-effective mechanism for returning irregular migrants", whose rapporteur is the Turkish member of the CoE parliamentary assembly, Özlem Türköne, of the European Popular Party group. The report is a clear example of a customary practice within national and European institutions alike, namely, the enormous distance between what it is claimed that migration policies pursue, and what is actually achieved through them.

The starting point that it adopts is that "the return (a euphemism used to avoid talking of expulsions) of irregular migrants is an economic, social and political priority". There is no reflection about this, neither critical nor argumentative, about the foundations on which this priority is based, it is merely treated as a fact in the report.

The report highlights three elements in its title: the human factor, and those of economics and effectiveness.

The only matter that is mentioned, in passing, about the human factor is that "there is no doubt that a forced return may seriously undermine an individual's dignity", which results in "forced repatriation operations being expensive and unpopular". Thus, insofar as how this policy affects people is concerned, the real cause for concern is that they are unpopular.

As regards the economic factor, the report makes it clear in its title that one of the main reasons behind them is that these programmes are cheaper: in the United Kingdom, in 2005, expulsions cost the British taxpayer £11,000 per person, whereas voluntary returns only cost them £1,000. According to more recent estimates, it is claimed that the cost of forced returns supposedly ranges between £11,000 and £25,600, while that of voluntary returns is meant to be between £600 and £5,000. And if we talk about the cost of detention the figure rises steeply: in the United Kingdom, the cost of keeping someone in detention is estimated at between £39,000 and £52,000. So, it is clear that what hurts is that it is very expensive.

And what about its effectiveness? In view of the data that the report itself provides, one can only infer that the author deceives herself. Let's see. The report's estimate is that there are 10 million irregular immigrants in the EU, a figure that grows by 500,000 people every year. On the other hand, the voluntary return programmes that have been implemented throughout the world over the last thirty years, have enabled the return of over 1.6 million people in over 160 countries. In the case of the United Kingdom, 30,000 people have been returned in this way in the 1999-2009 decade. Considering these figures, and in a best-case scenario, one could think of a volume of people who are returned voluntarily that, at most, would reach the number of people who join the ranks of those who are, or become, irregular every year. This would mean that the enormous figure of 10 million irregular immigrants would remain constant. That means that, in any case, we would just be talking of yet another return mechanism.

However, the report presents these voluntary return programmes as an "alternative solution to forced return (expulsion)", as the "only realistic option". It is evident that even while aseptically handling figures, European states will not embark upon a strategy to substitute expulsion policies for others involving "voluntary returns". Beyond the matter of political will, not even the figures even out. In the case of the Spanish state, by the end of June 2010, only 10,000 people had signed up for the voluntary return plan, out of the 136,000 who could have, theoretically, applied for it.

The fact is, that the most fragile aspect of these programmes lies in their not taking into account the opinion and interests of the people who they seek to return. If these people have come all the way into the EU, they have done so due to deep-lying motivations that do not disappear in any way as a result of the incentives that these programmes supposedly offer. That is why naming these returns "voluntary" is debatable.

Because, it is true, the literature connected to these programmes talks of "contributing to the development of the country of origin", of means to support reintegration in the fields of education, professional training, assistance for the creation of small businesses or access to employment…

As I started off saying, we are witnessing a show in which goals and measures are put forward that, in the form under which they are presented, have nothing to do with reality. But they fulfil a purpose. To make it look as though, through its expulsion policies, the EU has other "more humanitarian" projects, and that they are thinking of how to support the people who we do not want here. It is not a message that is directed at those millions of migrants who we have declared unwanted people, because they know, as they experience it personally, what the truth about these policies is. They are meant for internal European public opinion, which is willing to buy this merchandise, even if it is past its sell-by date, because it is a way for us to look better in the photograph. Because we do not wish to accept the role as executioners that our institutions play in relation to all these people.

In this way, the authorities are able to talk of the "control of migration flows" as the final purpose of policies of control that are repressive. And the fact is that if something is obvious after these policies have been adopted for decades, it is that they do not work to "control migration flows". But admitting this would be a first step towards an in-depth reassessment of this entire structure of economic, bureaucratic and repressive power that has been erected over all these years, and none of the EU's governments is willing to let this happen. At the end of the day, those who suffer and are victims of these policies are not our citizens they are "the others". Well, then, let's stay in the realm of fiction.

This article was first published (in Spanish) in Mugak magazine, no. 51, June 2010, , translation by Statewatch

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