The idea of return migration, with the aim of assisting voluntary returnees to settle back in their home countries, can seem an attractive way forward for governments that seek to manage migration humanely. In recent years, nevertheless, as return migration has become a preferred strategy for governments and one of the very few options open to migrants, the problems emerging from this practice and the policies that support it have increasingly come into view. Between the priorities of governance and the very complex, multiple and historically determined circumstances in which migration, as a global phenomenon, takes place, the consequences of implementing strategies that can be seen as unifocal become clear. This is evident in the disruption wrought by numerous government interventions that result in measures that counter, contain and displace the needs, aspirations and rights of migrants. Never is this more so than in the case of migration from the Global South to the Global North.

As a practice that involves cooperation between host or target country and sender governments, and very often the governments of middle countries as well, return migration has arisen in response to the precept that migration is, in and of itself, an unwelcome or problematic phenomenon which must be controlled, managed and stemmed. Assisted return migration is seen as the logical and measured response to policies and laws that have all too often denied the basic rights of citizenship, often for years at a time, to migrants across borders. The absence of citizenship rights leads in multiple ways to forms of bondage, whereby migrants in such situations find themselves marginalized legally, politically, economically and culturally by laws and policies that maintain their marginality and offer them very few options, if any at all. It is also the response to other, more sinister, forms of bondage, such as in the case of trafficked persons, so that assisted return and reintegration become processes of rescue and reform. Fundamental, also, is the assumption that, through good governance, the return of migrants to their home countries can not only be humane, but can also be somehow beneficial.

For the United Nations High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development, a priority will surely be to address the knotted crux of migrant realities. In order to do so, it is imperative that there be a very clear understanding of not only the many triggers that drive this mass global phenomenon that puts peoples on the road and pushes them across borders, but also of the consequences to government strategies that would seek to address and contain it. This requires a socio-cultural perspective that focuses firstly on the everyday realities of mass migration. The aim is to shed light on the broader contexts to those who engage in the more elite spheres of policymaking. It is this vertical connection from the specificities and variations of migrant contexts to the generality and abstractness of policymaking that needs tighter links. The question of ensuring that return migration does not overlap with refoulement, forced repatriation or deportation is a sensitive one. So too that of discerning what exactly frames the ‘voluntary’ decision of return. It is also here that many of the humanistic failures in the project of promoting the reintegration of returning migrants come into view. How voluntary, for instance, is the decision to return if it is one that is based on a very harsh closed legal system that denies access to citizenship, under very harsh and punishing economic circumstances or on the back of threats and discourses that equate undocumented migration with criminality?

Return migration is almost always a strategy aimed at empowering the host nation’s right to governance and border management rather than a strategy of concern for the people at stake. Take, for example, the van currently driving in targeted boroughs of the United Kingdom on behalf of the home office. It carries a large sign saying ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070 for free advice and help with travel documents.’ Those who come forward to such calls and ‘voluntarily’ return will most certainly not include those whose lives will be in danger if they do so. What is the effect of this and similar campaigns on individuals, who have had to quickly leave their homes, travel hundreds if not thousands of miles, to seek safety from regimes that would have made their lives unlivable? The effect would be one of constant fear and loss of hope. Refugees from war zones or ethnic conflicts, often devoid of papers, migrants fleeing countries and regions ravaged by the displacement, if not destruction, of local economies by transnational capital may very well choose to remain underground and consent to a life of invisibility. They will not seek help nor will they try to establish themselves legally for fear of being arrested. They will choose invisibility and absence. They will avoid claims of any kind that will bring them into the presence of the knowing state. Imagine what this can mean when there is a medical emergency. The outcomes are often tragic and run counter to claims that the policies aid the enlargement of the democratic process and the search for a more just and fair world. Indeed, many would argue that the results are often both an aggravation of previous wrongs and a fundamental violation of the human rights of these individuals.

What allows organizations and governments to present return migration as desirable is the idea of homeland as a place of origin and belonging. So too the idea that governments collaborate to ensure the smooth reintegration of returnees, thereby also ensuring that return migration becomes a manicured and measured process. In theory, this works well. At play here is the utilitarian logic of ‘development’ (itself the inverse of the much more context-bound, subjective, dynamic and uncontrollable flows and networks of migrants that emerge across the globe). Yet, this does not always work in practice. Even with measures in place to ensure that returnees have a smooth landing back ‘home’, there are many challenges to such a project. In order to better understand why return migration can be deeply problematic, if not a furthering of the bondage that many migrants find themselves subjected to, it is important for policymakers to shift perspective from the relative comforts and distance of the boardroom to the grass roots.

To start with, more focus on the sociocultural impacts of globalization should be factored into migration debates. As a phenomenon that has its roots in colonial ventures of some three hundred or more years ago, globalization profoundly affects local and global contexts, destabilizing localities and also creating connections across borders. In such a context of maelstrom, mobility becomes a way of life. Mobility, and the many migrations it includes, challenges the supposedly fixed boundaries of nations, collectives and identities. Bearing in mind, also, that the colonial project brought with it a degree of violence and upheaval, not to mention a prioritization of profit over people, it is not surprising that migrancy is commonplace. Discussions on migration and development could usefully begin with a reflection on the migratory impulses that accompany two twin aspects of the modern project; namely, those of progress and development. Both terms denote mutability as well as mobility. The economic and political unevenness of the world today, divided as it is between developing and developed nations, triggers the desire to belong in whatever way possible to the global hegemony. This desire is at the heart of many migrants. It has a profound affect on the ways in which one’s own relationship to the homeland or nation is imagined. In addition, it goes without saying that the many political, economic and environmental problems that afflict developing nations exacerbate migration, not least because people must go elsewhere in order to flee such contexts. At times, such as in the case of civil conflict, for example, they flee to survive. In other cases, local or national difficulties urge them to look beyond in search of a better life elsewhere. It is precisely for this reason that it is difficult, if not decidedly mistaken, to assume that concrete labels such as ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ can be used in isolation.

Most especially, in the context of migration from the Global South to the Global North, there are many factors that turn the homeland into a space of exclusion, especially for youth. As a result, return migration is a thorny issue, which may function as an abstract notion, but that flounders at ground level. The concept of homeland is always a poignant one in the context of migration. At its least knotty, usually in the context of settled, diasporic communities, homeland is a problematic term that splits emotional, ideological and other allegiances between a here and a there, so that the concept itself is often stretched to encompass the transnational and transcultural, if not also the transgenerational. In contexts where the return home is spurred by the impossibility of stay in the host country, the idea of homeland becomes a much more complex set of issues that must be treated with great care. The binary terms usually used to map migration, such as push/pull, voluntary/involuntary or economic/refugee, are insufficient. So too are the notions of return and reintegration. While these terms may be applicable at the level of the law, nevertheless, lived experience in this context reveals the shortcomings of legal frameworks to encompass and adequately deal with the complexity of human experiences of migration. Key terms that need more questioning at the level of policy are the allied concepts of nation and homeland. There is, all too often, the impulse to assume that the two denote the same. In many ways, not least the eyes of the law, this may be so. However, there are significant historical and cultural factors that distance these terms. The first, and perhaps the least regarded point of all by policymakers is the psychological legacy of colonialism that has left the societies of developing nations—the postcolonial nations—with a sense that their cultures, their languages and their ways of life are somehow peripheral to those in the more developed countries, who are themselves largely former imperial powers. A tangible basis for this sense of being second best lies in the uneven modernity that distinguishes the developing world from the developed one. The result of such unevenness is the formation of borders that must be crossed in order to deem the self—individual and collective—successful, i.e., to move from being merely developing to developed.

The increasing prevalence of policies of return migration will inevitably call for greater scrutiny when the consequences of their implementation become more widely recognized. The intertwining of the intensification of globalization and its attendant disruptions to patterns of trade and governance with the acceleration of mass migration and the accompanying calls for social justice, including both political and economic rights, will inevitably lead to greater scrutiny of migration management policies, such as return migration. Return migration is about much more than safe return or even securing employment ‘ back home.’ It is also about cultural crossings, reimaginings of the self, the repositioning of personal, familial and group aspirations. For the children of returnees, it can mean fewer opportunities since, in immigrant contexts, it is most often the second or third generation, and not the first, that benefits most in terms of economic and cultural capital from the migratory experience. Most importantly, when the nation or homeland is a place with a culture of expulsion, where emigration is rife, how can reintegration take place? Or, more to the point, what is there to integrate with? Perhaps the best instances of return migration are those that take place on individual, unassisted bases, where migrants choose to rebuild links with their original homelands because of significant improvements in the economy and infrastructure or political environment of these places. In such cases, reintegration occurs organically and does not need management or promotion.

Previously published by UN Chronicle (Vol. L No. 3 2013 September 2013)