In 2003, a young Ethiopian refugee named Milka was nervous about her security in Sudan, but afraid to return to Ethiopia. She instead paid smugglers to take her to Israel, where she remained for over a decade, unable to apply for refugee status. Nine years later, tired of living without legal status, she considered returning to Ethiopia.
As Milka was trying to decide, an Israeli member of Knesset stepped onto a podium in South Tel Aviv. Before thousands of anti-immigrant protesters, Miri Regev declared that Africans were “a cancer in our society,” and the government should do everything possible to encourage refugees to leave. Soon after, Israel’s Ministry of Interior began offering money to refugees and migrants agreeing to quit the country. Milka was told she could receive a free flight and $14,000 if she left. She accepted the offer, hoping to start a restaurant in Ethiopia.
When Milka was paid to leave Israel, she became part of a global trend of governments paying refugees to leave. In 2007, the Swedish government provided $7,150 to families agreeing to repatriate to Afghanistan. A year later, the Ghanaian government, working with the U.N., gave refugees $100 to return to Liberia. Soon after, Denmark began offering $18,700 to anyone returning to Iraq, Iran or Somalia.
In 2010 the British National Party (BNP), in an election campaign, promised to give $78,000 to non-whites in Britain, including refugees, who agreed to leave the country. In theory a family of six would receive around half a million dollars to return to Iraq. The BNP was never elected, but in 2011 the U.K. government handed over $3,500 in cash to families agreeing to return to Zimbabwe.
Three years later, then Australian prime minister Tony Abbott proposed paying asylum seekers $10,000 to go back to their countries of origin. Last year the German government, in response to protests against the influx of refugees, began paying up to $6,540 to those returning to Iraq. In all of these cases, and many more, a large proportion of those returning are refugees.
Not only are more governments paying refugees to leave, but more refugees are leaving because of such payments. Around the time Milka left, there was a strong correlation between how many refugees left Israel and how much money they received, even when detention rates remained the same, and conditions in countries of origin remained the same. For example, in October 2013 all East African refugees were paid $1,500 by the Israeli government if they left the country, and also faced detention if they stayed. Some 180 left. Two months later, detention policies remained the same, but the money was increased to $3,500. There was a significant increase from October and 295 people left the country. Similar evidence of money encouraging return can be found in studies on repatriation from Pakistan to Afghanistan; from Tanzania to Burundi; and from the U.K. to Zimbabwe.
In some of the above cases, those returning are not doing so voluntarily. Under the Israeli government’s Voluntary Departure program, refugees in detention are paid to repatriate, and those who stay are unlikely to be released. While Milka was never detained, she was denied a work visa, inhibiting her ability to pay for shelter and food.
In other cases, refugees are not exactly coerced to return home, but neither are their choices entirely voluntary. Refugees returning from Ghana to Liberia were not all detained but those who remained could not access visas. Under Germany’s current StartHilfe Plus program, refugees are paid 1,200 euros ($1,409) to withdraw their asylum applications before a decision has been made. As a result, some genuine refugees may return to avoid the risk of deportation in the future.
Though return is rarely voluntary, sometimes it is. Denmark, in offering more than $18,000 to asylum seekers willing to leave the country, promised that those who remained could keep their residency permits and so could continue accessing education, healthcare and rights to work.
In cases where return is both voluntary and influenced by involuntary factors, the types of payments vary. Sometimes refugees are paid before they leave and other times they are paid afterward. Sometimes they are paid money alone and other times they are given job training alongside money. In other instances, refugees are told that if they accept money and leave now, they will have a greater chance of obtaining a visa to reenter the host country in the future.
But refugees may feel job training is unhelpful and visas unlikely. Milka did not seek job training in Ethiopia and did not trust the Israeli government to provide her with a visa to come back to Israel if she ever left. She trusted cold cash alone and so packed her bags, boarded a flight and accepted a small white envelope from a civil servant standing near her. In it was the promised money. She put it safely in her pocket, settled into her seat and arrived in Addis Ababa soon after, frustrated by her experience in Israel but relieved finally to have left.
In the next part of this series, Mollie Gerver will examine whether paying refugees to leave is delivering the results that governments claim.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.