Voluntary return for undocumented migrants in Morocco, a solution for whom?

By Leila Marzo.

After the boat tragedies off the shores of Lampedusa and Malta made international headlines, the European Union came under high pressure to rethink its immigration policies. Accordingly, the newly established Task Force for the Mediterranean, chaired by the European Commission, developed concrete actions in five areas. One of these, EU cooperation with third countries, includes ‘Assisted Voluntary Return’ for migrants stranded in North African countries to their countries of origin.

But to what degree are these returns voluntary and how much assistance do they involve to ensure that an individual’s rights are protected during return and beyond return procedures? Let us take a closer look at this issue in the context of the EU-Moroccan relations.

The EU signed the Mobility Partnership with Morocco in 2013, in which ‘Voluntary Return’ is seen as a way to tackle irregular migration and uphold rights. In light of increasing evidence regarding the difficult conditions undocumented migrants in Morocco face (see reports: ‘Beyond Irregularity’ or ‘Trapped at the Gates of Europe’), it is questionable whether these returns are on a voluntary basis, or if they are forced to depart due to the lack of rights afforded by the Moroccan authorities. It also raises concern that the EU is promoting voluntary return in the region as a way of sidestepping its own human rights obligations should these migrants reach EU soil.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented migrants living in Morocco, the majority come from sub-Saharan Africa (AMERM 2008)1. They left their countries for a number of different reasons: in search of protection from extreme economic destitution, environmental devastation, or violent conflict. For many, their journey destination was Europe, but it has ended in Morocco due to heightened border controls at sea (Frontex’s operations) as well as around the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

Trapped in Morocco in a situation of protracted irregularity, they cannot access the labour market or basic services, such as healthcare, and they live with constant fear of being arrested, abused or even deported2.  While some may seek asylum, Morocco is not processing all of these claims3, nor is the EU providing any safe channels for them to reach Europe and access support and protection.

It is these difficulties, which compel many to avail of return programmes.

Despite the evidence regarding the precarious conditions of these migrants however, little is done by Morocco or the EU to proactively improve their living or working situation. The responsibility to protect these migrants lies mostly with Morocco and EU member states such as Spain, who have bilateral agreements to secure the gateway to Europe. These state parties also have international obligations to uphold the rights of all on their territory, and to provide access to international humanitarian protection. It should be noted that Morocco has ratified the United Nations Convention related to Refugees, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Nevertheless, both the EU and Morocco have placed assisted return as a central part of their migration management approach.

Voluntary or assisted return is a program designed to encourage undocumented migrants to leave the country of residence by paying them the airfare to go back to their country of origin and helping towards their reintegration in their home labour market (i.e. starting up a business). This program started in Europe and mostly involved a North-South move, but with border controls increasingly externalised, more South-South assisted returns are taking place (i.e. from Morocco and Libya to sub-Saharan countries) with the financial support from the EU4.

In some cases, voluntary return can be a good solution and can improve migrants’ lives, a successful example is the return program from Germany to Bosnia5. Migrants stuck in Morocco may be desperate, unable to fulfil their migration project, living in dreadful conditions and suffering extreme anxiety. Some may welcome the opportunity to return to their country for free with support to reintegrate.

However, is this a solution for the migrant who was forced into destitution in Morocco? Or is Europe simply taking away the problem further from its borders?

Voluntary return6 has a number of advantages for governments: it commits to little more than an airfare, it does not require bilateral cooperation between states, and offers a more humane alternative to forced return, which ensures greater political support.

Nonetheless, it also has disadvantages that should not be taken lightly. These include:

  1. There has been a long history of failure on the ground because they have failed to attract large numbers of participants in countries that implemented it in the 1970s (i.e. Netherlands or France).
  2. The “sustainability” of the solution (whether migrants can be persuaded to stay in their country of origin and whether they can reintegrate successfully) is far from clear;
  3. It does not result in major development gains for countries of origin;
  4. It has limited impact on the behaviour of returned migrants (i.e. that they may re-emigrate);
  5. Little is known on post-return outcomes.
  6. Above all, the ‘voluntary’ nature of return is questionable as there are rarely alternatives for these migrants, other than policy driven exclusion and destitution on grounds of their irregular status.

Many questions remain regarding the benefits of voluntary return programmes. Therefore, they should not be given priority when wanting to uphold the rights of irregular migrants, tackle exploitation, and support countries of origin and transit as the EU claims it is trying to do.

Voluntary return is not an alternative to developing and implementing protection mechanisms for migrants. It is important that the unfair treatment of irregular migrants is not promoted by the EU in their negotiations with neighbouring countries. Europe should be taking responsibility for the serious consequences that its border security policies cause to migrants, and should not simply, and I use here what I think is an appropriate expression from another discipline: “Put the problem in the Blacks’ Back Yard”7.

1 AMERM (2008) L’immigration subsaharienne au Maroc, analyse socio-économique, Rabat
2 Wender, A. S. (2004) La situation alarmante des migrants subsahariens en transit au Maroc et les consequences des politiques de l’Union Europeenne. La Cimade. Available here.
3 UNHCR states that 10 percent of all asylum requests are being processed – in J. Axelrad (2013) For African refugees in Morocco, a perilous path to asylum. Monitor. Available here.
4 Black, R. et al. (2011), “Pay-to-Go Schemes and Other Non-coercive Return Programs: Is Scale Possible?”, MPI. Available here.
5 Prettitore, P. (2004) “Refugee return in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Transferring Best Practice, Exeter University.
6 Advantages and disadvantages of voluntary return migration – see footnote 4
7 Putting the Problem in the Black’s Back Yard (PIBBY) – is an expression used in environmental law to indicate that the people with social and economic privileges object to a development in their own back yards, and if the objectionable item must be built, then it should be built so that its anticipated harms disproportionately affect poor and socially disadvantaged people. It is used here as a metaphor to express what Europe is doing when offering assisted return programs to irregular migrants in Morocco.

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