There are two main forms of return migration: voluntary return and forced return. Data on forced return are usually collected by national and international statistical offices, border protection and immigration law enforcement agencies. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) collects data on assisted voluntary return and reintegration programmes that it implements worldwide.
IOM Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration: 2018 at a GlanceBack to top
There is no universally accepted definition of return migration.
Return is “in a general sense, the act or process of going back or being taken back to the point of departure. This could be within the territorial boundaries of a country, as in the case of returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) and demobilized combatants; or between a country of destination or transit and a country of origin, as in the case of migrant workers, refugees or asylum seekers” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
Two main types of return migration are defined as follows:
1. Voluntary return - is “the assisted or independent return to the country of origin, transit or another country based on the voluntary decision of the returnee” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
Voluntary returns can be either spontaneous or assisted:
- Spontaneous return is “the voluntary, independent return of a migrant or a group of migrants to their country of origin, usually without the support of States or other international or national assistance” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
- Assisted voluntary return and reintegration is the "administrative, logistical or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country or country of transit and who decide to return to their country of origin" (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
- Voluntary humanitarian return is the application of assisted voluntary return and reintegration principles in humanitarian settings and “often represents a life-saving measure for migrants who are stranded or in detention” (IOM, 2020).
When return programmes involve additional reintegration support for returnees, these programmes are referred to as assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR). IOM defines AVRR as “Administrative, logistical or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country or country of transit and who decide to return to their country of origin.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
2. Forced return - “a migratory movement which, although the drivers can be diverse, involves force, compulsion, or coercion.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
See our new thematic page on COVID-19 and migration data for data on return migration due to COVID-19.
While millions of migrants return to their country of origin every year, not all returns are necessarily recorded. The top five countries that experienced the largest outflows in 2018 were Germany (923,580), Republic of Korea (365,117), Turkey (323,918), Japan (292,059) and the Netherlands (102,802), according to figures produced by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) on outflows of foreign populations from selected OECD countries (OECD, 2020). Note: Each country has a different methodology for measuring outflows.
In terms of voluntary returns, the number of migrants returning voluntarily through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme in 2019 was 64,958, representing a 2.6 per cent increase from 2018 (63,316 migrants). The increase was mainly due to a growing trend in returns from transit countries like the Niger and Djibouti as opposed to returns from countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) region. Additionally, 15,248 migrants from Libya and Yemen were able to return through IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme in 2019 (IOM, 2020).
The top 10 host/transit countries for AVRR in 2019 were: the Niger, Germany, Djibouti Greece, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, Mexico, Belgium and Mali (ibid.). This is the first time that Germany was not the main host country, being overtaken by the Niger. With a 10 per cent increase from 2018, the Niger assisted 16,414 AVRR beneficiaries, whereas Germany, with an 18 per cent decrease from 2018, assisted 13,053 beneficiaries (ibid.). Despite the decline from 2018 to 2019, beneficiaries from Germany accounted for 20 per cent of the total AVRR caseload, while beneficiaries from the Niger represented 25 per cent (ibid.).
Frontex, the European Union Border and Coast Guard Agency, reports that 298,190 irregular migrants were given a “return decision” by EU Member States in 2019. Of this figure, 138,860 people were effectively returned (either forcibly or voluntarily) (Frontex, 2020).
In 2019, 19,000 people left the United Kingdom (UK) via enforced or voluntary return, the lowest annual level since 2014 (Walsh, 2020). There were 7,400 enforced returns in 2018, 22% fewer than in the previous year – and the lowest annual level since 2004 – due to changes in the immigration systems, such as a reduced use of detention (ibid.). Voluntary returns still account for the biggest share of all returns (ibid.). COVID-19 has significantly impacted returns and all categories of return declined in the first quarter of 2019 (ibid.).
A total of 28,256 migrants were assisted to return from the European Economic Area (EEA) in 2019, which accounted for 43.5 per cent of the total caseload. Despite a 17 per cent decrease as compared to 2018, the EEA remains the top host region (IOM, 2020). Most of the beneficiaries were assisted to return from Germany (13,053, or 46 per cent of the total number of beneficiaries assisted from the EEA). Greece (3,804) remains the second main host country, despite a 22 per cent decrease in the number of migrants assisted compared to 2018. Austria (2,840) and Belgium (2,183) have lost their respective third and fourth positions, being overtaken by the Netherlands (3,035), which experienced a 41 per cent increase in the total caseload of migrants assisted (ibid.).
Central America, North America and the Caribbean
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 267,258 removals in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, a four per cent increase compared to FY 2018 (ICE, 2020).
Return migration increased 42% between 2013 and 2014, reaching a level of 51 259 Salvadorians, mostly from the United States and Mexico, returning mainly because of increasingly strict deportation rules. During 2015, the levels stabilized, with an increase of barely 2 per cent (SICREMI, 2017).
In 2019 there were 2,394 cases of AVRR from Central and North America and the Caribbean, which was more than triple compared to 2018. This was mostly due to an increase in the number of intraregional returns, specifically 2,244 cases from Mexico, 57 cases from Guatemala and 24 cases from the Dominican Republic; these migrants were assisted to return to Honduras (1,870), the United States (189) and El Salvador (158) (IOM, 2020).
In total, 47 migrants returned from South America, 815 migrants were assisted to return to Brazil, 240 migrants to Colombia and 63 migrants to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (ibid.). Such a low number of migrants returning from the region is explained by the fact that governments in the region placed regularization options through the application of general or specific migration instruments for regional and extraregional nationals, such as the Residence Agreement for Nationals of the States Parties of the Associated States of the Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur – MERCOSUR) (IOM, 2019). The region is also marked by significant intraregional migration flows, which account for about 70 per cent of the immigration in the region. In 2018 and 2019, South America saw a significant increase of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, prompting countries to liberalize intraregional migration in order to better support them (IOM, 2020).
Asia and the Pacific
In 2019, a total of 1,230 migrants were assisted to return from Asia and the Pacific region – a 29 per cent decrease when compared to the figures from 2018 (ibid.). As in 2018, the majority of return flows from the region in 2019 were intraregional, mostly from Australia, Indonesia and Vanuatu to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran (ibid.). Australia (689) and Indonesia (266), comprised 56 per cent and 22 per cent of returns from the region, respectively (ibid.).
The Middle East and Africa
West and Central Africa
In 2019, 18,975 returns from the West and Central Africa (WCA) region accounted for 29 per cent of the global AVRR caseload (ibid.). The Niger alone responded for 87 per cent (or 16,414) of all migrants assisted to return from the region. The majority of international migrants in WCA were intraregional, but unlike in the previous year, movement patterns between WCA and North African countries varied considerably in 2019. There has been, for instance, a steep increase in the number of third-country nationals being forcibly returned from Algeria to neighbouring countries such as Mali and the Niger (ibid.).
East and Horn of Africa
In East and Horn of Africa, a total of 5,826 migrants were assisted to return from the region in 2019, representing a 38 per cent increase from 2018 (ibid.). The majority of the beneficiaries assisted to return were assisted from Djibouti, representing 72 per cent of the total regional caseload, or 4,220 cases. The second biggest host country in the region was Somalia, accounting for 12 per cent of AVRRs from the region (ibid.).
In 2019, a total of 911 migrants were assisted to return from Southern Africa, a 16 per cent increase compared to 2018 (ibid.). The majority of migrants returning from this region were assisted to return from South Africa (79%), Angola (7%) and Zambia (6%) (ibid.).
As the largest global provider of Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) and Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programmes, IOM collects voluntary return data on a regular basis. IOM data include the number of participants, host and origin country, as well as sex, age and migration status in the host country prior to return. Since 2010, IOM has published key data on the AVRR website (IOM, 2018, IOM, 2017; IOM, 2016; IOM, 2015). IOM data also include information on assisted migrants by specific vulnerability (unaccompanied migrant children, migrants with health-related needs and victims of trafficking).
Data on returned or “repatriated” refugees – i.e. refugees who have returned to their country of origin spontaneously or in an organized manner (sometimes with help of IOM’s AVRR programmes)– are collected respectively by IOM and UNHCR.
Data on the outflows of the foreign population from selected OECD countries are collected by OECD’S Continuous Reporting System on International Migration (SOPEMI) and published in the annual International Migration Outlook report.
Since 2014, Eurostat has provided the following data for 21 EU Member States on return migration of people who are third-country nationals:
- Third country nationals ordered to leave - annual data (rounded);
- Third country nationals returned following an order to leave - annual data (rounded);
- Third-country nationals who have left the territory by type of return and citizenship;
- Third-country nationals who have left the territory by type of assistance received and citizenship.
Data on forced and voluntary return from EU Member States and the three Schengen Associated Countries (Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) are also published in the Frontex Risk Analysis Reports.
The Return Migration and Development Platform from the European University Institute promotes exchange and knowledge-sharing about return migrants’ realities and the contexts of their experiences.
Data on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s “enforcement and removal operations” (ERO), including forced returns, are summarized in its annual reports.
Central and South America
Data on return migration from and to Central and South (and Northern) American countries are collected by OECD’s Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI) and published in the International Migration in the Americas reports.
The Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection publishes annual data on forced and voluntary return from Australia.
The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, with the support of IOM, recently started the implementation of the Afghan Returnee Information System (ARIS), a digital registration process for both undocumented migrants and refugee returnees crossing to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran. IOM publishes these data here.
Some countries and/or organizations have collected data to monitor return migration and the outcomes of return programmes, for example:
- • Four EU Member States – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic and Norway – have collected data on post-return, monitoring returnees to identify longer-term outcomes.
- • Switzerland: IOM is tracking outcomes for returnees from Switzerland to Nigeria whom it assisted in 2015, at roughly 9 months post-return.
- • In the UK in 2013, the charity Refugee Action compiled a small study of the post-return experiences of their beneficiaries.
A few research studies have assessed the sustainability of return and reintegration programmes. For example, Koser and Kuschminder (2015) developed a Return and Reintegration Index which was tested on 156 returnees in eight countries of origin. Strand et al. (2016) measured sustainable return based on the perception of returnees from Norway to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kosovo, and ICMPD (2015) conducted a study to evaluate the sustainability of AVR programmes from Austria to Kosovo.Back to top
Data strengths and limitations
Data on forced return and on voluntary return are scattered across different data sources and are often incomplete or only partially publicly available - For example, several countries that implement AVRR programmes (either under IOM or government auspices) are not reported on in the Eurostat database (e.g. Germany, The Netherlands, and the UK). In addition, voluntary departures are usually not tracked. In order to improve this, the EU is implementing the Integrated Return Management Application (IRMA), a secure web-platform for integrating all EU return activities.
There is a large data gap on post-return data mainly due to the lack of definitions and established indicators for measuring “reintegration”. However, in January 2016, the EMN released guidelines for the monitoring and evaluation of AVR(R) programmes that provide a list of questions and indicators to be included in post-return monitoring activities.
More recently in 2017, the DFID-funded MEASURE Project (Mediterranean Sustainable Reintegration), a pilot project that fosters the sustainability of reintegration support in the framework of Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration in the Mediterranean, led to the development of a set of 15 field-tested indicators and a scoring system to measurement of reintegration outcomes and improving understanding of returnees’ progress towards sustainability. These indicators are based on a revised definition of sustainable reintegration in the context of return, (IOM, 2017) and therefore relate to the three economic, social and psychosocial dimensions of reintegration. The scoring system allows comparison of trends in returnees’ reintegration across country contexts and over time.
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