Return of refugees to their countries of origin requires realistic perspectives and self-determination
New PRIM study examines the situation of refugees to improve the options for a „voluntary return“ to their countries of origin
Germany experienced a sharp increase in asylum applications in 2014 and 2015. In response, the German government increasingly promoted return migration by setting up a number of return programs. Since 2016, the Returning to New Opportunities program of the German federal government supports the „voluntary return“ of refugees and their reintegration in their countries of origin. Researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) were commissioned to research the needs, vulnerabilities, and support of refugees in Germany from a social work perspective, looking at fundamental aspects such as in what respect return is a topic at all and the refugees‘ own perspectives on a potential return. The results of the PRIM („Project Migrants Interested in Returning“) study have also provided insights into the awareness and use of existing support services for coping with everyday life and for planning a return. The results show that the refugees‘ current situation and measures preparing for return and reintegration are the main determining factors for the potential success of return migration. The aim is to strengthen the migrants‘ sense of self-determination and agency to develop return perspectives oriented towards the lifeworlds of the respective individuals. Offers of support and advice on these aspects should be embedded in the field of social work as migration and refugee social work has decades of experience and expertise in this context.
Developing lifeworld oriented perspectives for return together with refugees
The Returning to New Opportunities program is coordinated by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The program covers the following countries: Afghanistan, Albania, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Iraq, Kosovo, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Serbia, and Tunisia. The measures designed to facilitate the return as well as the economic and social reintegration of refugees following their return include information and counseling services along with various projects to provide qualifications and promote employment and business start-ups in their countries of origin.
The task of the current PRIM study was to determine what support services are needed and how they can best be accessed. „The main aim of our project was to determine how refugees from the 13 countries of origin on our list can be supported to develop realistic professional and social future perspectives,“ said Professor Claudia Olivier-Mensah, head of the PRIM project. When the study was launched in early 2019, almost 600,000 refugees had arrived in Germany from the 13 countries mentioned above. The interest of these refugees in returning varied in accordance with the differing status of their asylum applications, which was either undecided, approved, or rejected. For many refugees, a so-called „voluntary return“ is the only alternative to forced repatriation, which makes the use of the word „voluntary“ appear somewhat inappropriate in this special context.
Offers of return preparation often have a deterrent effect
After an initial quantitative data analysis of the refugee target group in Germany, the research team conducted 62 qualitative interviews nationwide in 2019, both with refugees themselves and with various support actors. „Interviews with refugees on the topic of return are extremely challenging. They tend to be very skeptical and reserved, especially if they don’t have a residence permit,“ said Olivier-Mensah. Her team has compiled the results of the study in a 94-page publication for GIZ.
According to the study, refugees experience the arrival phase in Germany as very stressful. They feel forced into a passive, powerless situation in which they can’t work, can’t attend language courses, and are also often in poor health. During this phase, the offer to facilitate their return is frequently perceived as more of a threat. „After all, it was the objective of these people to stay here,“ added Olivier-Mensah. The situation changes if the people involved are granted residence status, because a return can then be perceived as a truly voluntary decision.
PRIM gives seven policy recommendations for the reorientation of return counseling
In their publication, the social scientists formulated seven recommendations for the Returning to New Opportunities program and for return policy actors. According to them, first and foremost the concept of return within return policies needs to be redefined. Return should not necessarily imply permanent resettlement as a dead end in the country of origin. Another piece of advice concerns the support for vulnerable groups such as women, children – including unaccompanied minors – and elderly people. They need specific support services to be able to develop good future perspectives in their country of origin. „Without the guarantee of special assistance, the return of vulnerable groups is questionable from a humanitarian perspective,“ emphasized Olivier-Mensah.
Other recommendations include taking addiction problems into account, enhancing the autonomy of the target group, planning returns at the right time, providing transnational support for returnees, focusing on the arrival and initial phase back in the country of origin, and improving the return policy concept in collaboration with various support groups. In particular, however, return counseling should be carried out only by qualified staff from the field of social work. „We recommend to integrate return counseling based on the individual lifeworld approach as part of life counseling covering everyday problems and challenges – in order to facilitate access as far as possible,“ summarized Olivier-Mensah. Indeed, the study revealed that offers of support specifically addressing the topic of return often have a deterrent effect. By also including alternative future opportunities in counseling, such as the possibility of staying in Germany or migrating to another country, return becomes one option among several others and can thus become an intentional choice on the part of refugees.
The PRIM study, which is available online via the Mainz University Library, summarizes: „Social work provides open future counseling based on the lifeworld approach. This illuminates topics relevant to the everyday life of their clients. Essentially, the principle of social work is to help people to help and empower themselves and to consult people in that way that they can take self-determined return decisions.“
Professor Claudia Olivier-Mensah was a research associate and postdoctoral researcher at the Social Work division of the Institute of Education at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz from 2014 to 2019. From 2011 to 2015, she was also managing consultant at TRANSSOS, which looked at processes of transnational social support. In October 2019, Olivier-Mensah was appointed professor at the IUBH University of Applied Sciences in Frankfurt am Main.
Main topics analyzed in the PRIM study
ill./©: PRIM study
Professor Dr. Claudia Olivier-Mensah
Professor of Social Work
IUBH University of Applied Sciences
Darmstädter Landstr. 110
60598 Frankfurt am Main, GERMANY
C. Olivier-Mensah et al., Developing Lifeworld Oriented Perspectives for Return Migration. Needs, Vulnerabilities and Support of Refugees in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz,
15 October 2020,