Facilitated Return: Resettlement and Repatriation in the Global Migration Crisis

By Michelle DeFreese

As migrant laws and international conventions governing the treatment of asylum seekers come under greater scrutiny, long-term plans for the repatriation of refugees to African countries are being negotiated as a part of the solution to the global migration crisis. An unprecedented 60 million people are currently displaced, the greatest number in recorded history. What are the challenges facing African nations as both hosts of asylum seekers and as destination countries for repatriated asylum seekers and refugees?

The majority of the world's refugees live in developing countries. In 2013, seven out of the ten largest refugee camps in the world were in Africa. Dadaab in Kenya is currently the largest refugee camp in the world. The migration and refugee crises have become prominent features in international media coverage. The issue of repatriation of failed asylum seekers is also of increasing concern. Large-scale deportation schemes are currently being considered while repatriation commitments are being increasingly utilized to negotiate the settlement of refugees.

Bilateral and trilateral agreements are also being used to facilitate the return of refugees. In January 2016, Sweden signed an agreement with Morocco to accept unaccompanied minors that are failed asylum seekers. Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement with the UNHCR to facilitate the voluntary return Somali refugees in 2013. The repatriation of refugees became a central issue following the attack at Garissa University College in Kenya in 2015, prompting the government to urge for the closing of the Dabaad refugee camp.

A critical aspect of today's migration crisis is the ongoing deportation and repatriation of failed asylum seekers that lack documentation and proof of nationality. Approximately 130,000 undocumented migrants arrive in Greece each year. An estimated 80% of asylum seekers arrive in Germany without documentation or with counterfeit paperwork, resulting in delayed repatriation or ineligibility for deportation.

In West Africa, asylum seekers fleeing Boko Haram often depart without the passports needed to prove their identity. Without the necessary paperwork, individuals are either considered stateless or deemed "unreturnable" due to administrative technicalities. An estimated 10 million people worldwide are currently considered stateless including 750,000 living in West Africa.

Complications caused by either missing or destroyed documents have resulted in alternative (and inadequate) strategies for processing stateless asylum seekers. One of which is the use of lengthy detentions as described in an awareness raising report by the A Face to the Story project funded by the European Programme on Integration and Migration. The report documents the stories of 39 "unreturnable migrants" and the circumstances that have led to them spending an average of eight years in protracted detention due to their ambiguous legal status.

In the current environment of migration and asylum, foreign aid is becoming increasingly conditioned on the agreement of countries to accept failed asylum seekers. Germany has signed bilateral readmission agreements with Algeria and Morocco that are directly tied to development aid commitments. Similarly, Israel signed an agreement with Rwanda to facilitate the deportation of both failed asylum seekers and stateless individuals. According to a report in the weekly publication, The East African, the agreement will enable the deportation of hundreds of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to both Rwanda and Uganda in exchange for millions of dollars in grants and sales.

New bilateral agreements are being formed, outpacing the reconciliation of international conventions with current demands. The European University Institute (EUI) recently released an inventory of bilateral readmission agreements demonstrating the complexity and broad usage of a system of agreements that currently links over 125 countries. These agreements have had questionable effects on the consequences for individuals. Researchers and policy analysts argue that the commitments create a system of unbalanced reciprocities that confer asymmetric costs and benefits that capitalize on unequal power dynamics between nation states. A policy brief on Norway's Readmission Agreement with Ethiopia by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) noted that migration policies are often viewed as a reflection of "North-South disparities, rendering migrant-sending states as powerless actors." At the same time, the brief found that "Norway's keen interest in return may give Ethiopia a strong hand in other diplomatic negotiations." A similar dynamic is evident in ongoing EU negotiations with Turkey to ease the flow of migrants in exchange for financial and diplomatic incentives.

In terms of both the number of displaced and complexities inherent in current norms and conventions governing asylum, the current migration crisis has proven to be as intractable as it is unmanageable. In order to process and coordinate the eventual repatriation of failed asylum seekers, greater cooperation and consistency will be needed. As nations scramble to negotiate sufficiently attractive incentives for the return of refugees, bilateral agreements are often compromised in terms of their commitment to human rights; leaving limited options or legal remedies for individuals that have been effectively traded as geopolitical capital in-line with state-led interests.

Above all else, the international community needs policies that enable the integration of migrants and ultimately prevent asylum seekers from falling into a cyclical pattern of failed asylum, repatriation, and repeated migration.

Michelle DeFreese is a consultant with the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD) based in Tanzania. She completed her Master's degree in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.