Interview

Voluntary Return?

Tejan Lamboi was one of the founders of the self-organization of deportees in Sierra Leone, NEAS. (Photo: private)
The GIZ gets into the "voluntary" return and reintegration of refugees. Questions for Tejan Lamboi, Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers in Sierra Leone.

It seems like the hype of the so-called Welcome Culture have become a fairy tale of summer 2015 – at least for the governments. Not much is left from the idea to reduce the pressure of the most targeted countries such as Greece or Italy by developing solidarity concepts of fair refugee distribution to the various EU states. Hardly a modest figure of the announced 160,000 relocations of refugees has actually taken place. Instead isolation and deportation became the dominant policy, pushed by populism of right-winged parties and upcoming elections.  

In this context actors like Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) gain importance as they are considered responsible to ‚take care‘ for Voluntary Return and reintegration programs for refugees and migrants. The Center for International Migration and Development (CIM) run by GIZ has decades-long experiences of ‚placing qualified employees and leaders to employers all around the world’. Now it will become involved into the return and reintegration programs as well.

The return program by the German Development Ministry has come into effect by 1st March 2017 to ‘support’ refugees with no perspective of asylum in Germany in their so-called Voluntary Return. The GIZ is supposed to „build a bridge between the return consultancy in Germany and the German development cooperation in the refugee’s countries of origin” by the help of ‘reintegration scouts’.

In an interview Tejan Lamboi, medico-partner of the Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers in Sierra Leone (NEAS), has been asked to give an estimation of the measure.

If an application for asylum has been denied the targeted asylum seeker is supposed to leave Germany within a period of some weeks. Otherwise the person will face compulsory deportation. In the future an option of so called voluntary, supported return is offered to these group of people. A good idea?   

Tejan Lamboi: Good idea? That people could even think that this might work is what amazes me. In fact the manner in which the whole discourse has been framed around “return” leaves no space for other options and this is scary. It is like taking the first step with the wrong foot and in the wrong direction. Honestly it all sounds like a horror film! For the asylum seeker it is like choosing between the lesser of two evils without even being aware which of the two is worse. So going back to your question my answer is NO! In my opinion, this is a naive idea! And naive is still being optimistic here. And this is why:

 Such a move bundles all asylum seekers into the same bracket and make the same problematic assumption of generalization - the one-size-fits all approach.  It assumes that there is no other option but return and that the decision to return is an easy one. The problem here is that such thinking totally disregards the diverse reasons for which people flee and the difficulties associated with that process. No one ever runs away if you feel secure, protected and happy in your country of origin. This is something everyone knows and I would not belabour on it. What I would rather stress is that sometimes this flight costs a lot not just in terms of money but also personal safety and wellbeing.

Some of these asylum seekers have seen people dying while trying to flee. They have been traumatised by the very complex nature of fleeing and getting through those huge walls and blockades. And I don’t want to make the same mistake of generalising here but in the context of West African asylum Seekers, I can tell you that they have experienced so much violence and trauma when fleeing, sometimes even worse than the situation they are running away from in their home countries. Why would people still take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean when they have heard of or seen others drowned?

Not everyone crossed the Mediterranean to get to Europe but even those who do not also make cruel experiences. What about those freezing to death in deadly weather conditions across the continent they hoped would bring then safety? Because of the freezing conditions two Iraqi men and a Somali woman died in Bulgaria earlier this year as well as an Afghan man in Greece when the temperatures fell to minus 14 degrees.

Therefore urging asylum seekers to leave „voluntarily“ few weeks after they have been denied protection disregards the basic human need of seeking protection and all the struggles they endure trying to reach that safety.

Can we at all speak of voluntariness in this context?

I am struggling with the fact that this has been formulated as voluntary. On the one hand you threaten people with deportation and on the other you ask them to leave „willingly“? Any decision that is taken under such duress is one that lacks genuine voluntariness. What is even worse is the timeframe: Leave the country in two weeks or you will face deportation! This is a complete disregard for human dignity and rights! The individual becomes an object, they are considered second-rated.  And instead, the all-important state policy is what needs to come first - by all means.

I am sure that even those who might genuinely want to leave because they are fed up of the degrading predicament of being a rejected asylum seeker find themselves tangled in a web of dangerous spiders if they have to decide to leave in a few weeks. This is just not logical and in many ways a euphemistic justification for implementing a cruel practice as deportation which continues to curse the notion of human rights protection. Giving asylum seekers options that only lead to deportation is inhuman!

Return and development will be connected much more than before. In your opinion – Is there a chance that return programs will benefit the development in the countries of the refugee’s origin?

Return programs can definitely be strengthened to be part of mutual development cooperation between two countries. But you need to a close look on the contexts. In a situation wherein you have experts from so-called developing countries like Sierra Leone, who have studied and made a careers in a so-called developed country like England in their respective fields abroad and have reached a point where they are willing to go back to support their home countries, then I see a mutual benefit in facilitating such returns. In most cases these are people who migrated through scholarship and other programmes but did not return home after such studies.

The situation is very different with asylum seekers. We are talking here about people who fled because they have reached a point where they realised that they pose enormous dangers to their personal wellbeing and safety, if they continue to stay.

How does a development cooperation that really wants to support these people should look like?

Development cooperation needs a radical transformation. A transformation that makes such cooperation become how it should be – mutual. A cooperation that ensures potentially rich countries like Sierra Leone being able to benefit from their wealth, their diamonds, bauxite and gold and so on. And not one based on exploitation and unfair trade deals, which enables powerful multinational companies from rich countries in the West in connivance with local leader to exploit resources much to their advantages.

I will give you an example from my country Sierra Leone: The Luxemburg-based company Socfin has taken huge hectors of land from hundreds of local farmers in Pujehun Southern Sierra Leone for its palm oil plantation project. So the local famers lost their source of livelihood, even without proper compensation. They faced the same situation like thousands of smallholder farmers in Sierra Leone and other countries of the Global South, who become poorer, eat fewer meals and have taken their children out of school as a result of large-scale farmland investments.

When people become poorer, exploited and marginalised they see no option but to leave, especially the young ones. Therefore development partners from the north have carefully examine how these unfair partnerships are destroying poor countries, fuelling national unrests and acting as catalysts for people fleeing.

Against this backdrop, it is my view that we should remodel development cooperation, which aims to reintegrate asylum seekers to their countries of origin, in a way that the power imbalance between developed (Germany in this case) and developing countries will be reduced.

All measures of support for returnees are based on the idea of reintegration to the job markets. To give some examples: Access to trainings, further education programs, support in job-hunting and company founding, consultations regarding accsess to micro-credits for start-up capital.  Does this open realistic opportunities for return and future perspectives for the returnees?  

On the surface, these offers look romantic, forward thinking and development-oriented. Providing training and technical education and support in the job market for returnees are well sounding initiatives. How I wish this was real and achievable. We are talking about countries that have been destabilised by exploitation and therefore conflicts. Countries, where a huge proportion of the population is unemployed. Where do these returnees find jobs after such training?  It is no rocket science to know this might not work for the majority. Maybe we should return all the European experts and give their jobs to the returnees? Probably, but unfortunately this would still not be enough.

A couple of years ago you co-founded the Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers in Sierra Leone being deported from Germany. For those Asylum Seekers there was no similar program available. Do you think they would have benefit from it? Or what else could have supported them?

This is a good question. Maybe taking the example of the Network of Ex-asylum Seekers (NEAS-SL) is a good way to conceptualise this. However, one should be mindful of generalising, because the experiences differ between those and others, who were deported back to for example Afghanistan.  The greatest strength of NEAS-SL has been the power to organise themselves and raise up their voices against what was a violation of their rights.

We established the network over five years ago with deportees from various states across Germany. Their applications for asylum in Germany were denied and were asked to return within short timeframes with programmes such as the so-called Assisted Voluntary Return offered by IOM. These so-called voluntary return programmes were never an option for NEAS-SL members. For instance, the chairman Abdulai Daramy told me five years after his deportation, the IOM program was in itself a deportation – the only difference was that the state could justify it.  Daramy, like a lot of other NEAS members, never took this option.  As consequence many were subsequently arrested, imprisoned in deportation cells and sent back to Sierra Leone, some in chartered jets.

And again the issue is not whether it would have been better, if they had accepted to return voluntarily with IOM. How much or whether this would have prevented the social problems such as stigmatisation and discrimination (also from within family circles) once they were returned, I am not sure. But similar to the present policy it was clear that they were never given other options but return or deportation. I think this is problematic. What is needed are tailor-made individual approaches, which allow sufficient time and create alternative options other than deportation.


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