European Migrant Repatriation and Rhetoric: How Institutional Language Hides Complexity

Image result for rapatriation de migrant

In European migration policy, at the nexus of sustainable thinking and institutional limitations, the practice of repatriating migrants has emerged as one of the most widespread practices to outweigh migrant inflows. Brought on by a late modern rhetoric of ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘social unrest’, policymakers in European states and at the level of the EU have entered into a process of securitizing this particular issue. This has led to migrant flows into European territory forming an object of security, or rather of insecurity for its citizens. Considering migrants as a threat to social cohesion, labor stability and, for some, a destabilizing effect on welfare, governments have been pushed to find solutions. Yet while discourses – understood here as the vocabulary and debates that frame the issue – on the issue appear mostly uniform, what is conveyed in political discussions is often not what is reflected in reality. While heavily discussed in politics and public debate, repatriation often carries with it a distinct vocabulary, one which ends up forming the parameters of the debate itself. When a politician speaks of making a flow of migrants more ‘effective’ or uses their speech to further securitise the issue and create urgency, this then leads to an actual process of internalising these terms, writing them into policy, and ultimately executing them in the field. The problem that is then created is one of disconnect. As the words used on repatriation frame the debate a certain way, the realities that migrants endure finish by fading behind that rhetoric, effectively creating what can be understood as a discursive gap.


Repatriation in the European context is currently executed in two different ways. The most widely used – and most controversial – option remains forceful repatriation. This practice is put into motion when a person’s immigration status becomes irregular and it entails the removal of that person from their territory of residence by revoking the legality of their stay. In practice, this comes down to removing such individuals through the use of force. The second option – set in motion through the same processes – presents itself as a process of voluntary return, or assisted voluntary return (AVR). Often seen as the more preferable option when it comes to irregular migrants, this process often entails the provision of return transport and reintegration aid in repatriation. 

As these flows both rely heavily on the successful return of individuals to their country of origin, and remain critical in achieving the migration goals of several European states, as expressed by the EU itself , it doesn’t take much to realise that the execution of such policies is both complex and highly sensitive to their mandate. Such mandates are constructed on the basis of consolidated research, government statistics and expert knowledge. Yet when looking at the practicality of their implementation, this high level of sensitivity often either fades into the agency of actors working with migrants or becomes prohibitive. Returning migrants then either end up suffering unnecessarily from the conditions that are imposed upon them by return, or the management of their return becomes individualized and the impact of initial policy becomes much less important.


When it comes to the actual implementation of return, research paints a broad picture of a problematic process, yet often doesn’t even do justice to the difficulties that returning migrants endure. For many European states including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the rate of secondary emigration or re-emigration after return has remained close to 50% regardless of whether migrants were repatriated forcefully or voluntarily. While this trend is likely to continue, researchers have also shown that the reality of the conditions that repatriated individuals endure – not to mention the conditions under which they are repatriated – are much more compelling in demonstrating the lack of sustainability of the process. 

Through a process in which they lack agency, a majority of handled cases holds testimonial to a loss of economic stability. Especially looking at financial aspects of the process, repatriation is often costly both for migrants themselves and the actors carrying it out. In the case of AVR, such costs mostly include reintegration assistance, yet for the forceful return of migrants, logistics remain especially costly. This continues to be particularly problematic when considering the futility of such processes compared to current rates of secondary emigration after return.

Furthermore, literature on repatriation remains abundantly clear on the insecurity that it constitutes for migrants. When given the imperative to leave, and losing their legal situation of residence, migrants are placed in an immediate condition of unease with regards to their security. As they are uprooted from a situation of relative safety in terms of employment, personal security, social benefits, and quality of life, and in most cases, the situation that they are faced with upon return is often much less stable in comparison. Considering that such a process is also carried out in a very tight timeframe, the insecurity that is then produced is especially notable.

And while this would seem to concern the majority of cases, a good handful will also experience much more fundamental threats through their return such as a threat to their life. The decision of returning migrants isn’t a transparent one, and lays entirely at the agency of governments. This leads to a handful of cases being misjudged, leading to a dangerous repatriation for the affected migrants.

The decision to end an individual’s legal residence in a country will often be judged on a basis of necessity. If they do not need to stay in their host country, they can be returned. While this therefore works perfectly from a theoretical perspective, especially with regards to economic migrants, when it comes to actually assessing this necessity, once again the complexities involved become apparent. Currently, most states conduct such assessments on a case by case basis, considering the domestic situation and the conditions for their application when entering the country. They also use a host of statistics data and assessments made by state contractors and government agencies. Yet despite such sources, the decision for repatriation ultimately always comes down to how the domestic situation is framed and is reduced to a simple binary of repatriating or keeping them in their host country. The rhetoric used in this process is then once again especially impactful, and leads in most cases to an asymmetrical or incorrect framing of a situation.


In a field with its own specialised vocabulary, technical terms such as ‘voluntary return’, binary understandings of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, as well as the normative implications of such wordings, allow professionals to convey their directives and understanding very accurately. However, when considering the aforementioned realities of repatriation, technical wordings also contribute to obscuring the very processes they seem to frame. 

When a migrant has been successfully repatriated to their country of origin, institutions facilitating this displacement – such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or national entities – assume that the movement has been carried out to completion. What fails to be considered, or at least is obstructed by this language, are the individual factors of the displacement, as well as some components of reintegration. While the movement has been carried out, institutions and policy makers have little to no insight into the reality of this movement. Has their return been able to maintain security and stability of a migrant through returning them to a safe environment? Will their economic and social situation remain stable enough for them to reintegrate? Is the migrant likely to undertake secondary immigration? Many of these questions remain obstructed by language and only become apparent in hindsight. And while these obstructions also result from the institutional framing of the process and short-term approach, the discourse that it produces reinforce it and adds to this obstruction. 

In addition to the operational difficulties, discourse also manages to obscure the normative and conceptional elements of return. Considering the phrasing of ‘effective repatriation’ or ‘orderly’ movements as an example, one can come to question their normative values. If the goal of a migrant’s return is to be effective, the main beneficiary of such an objective seems to be the organization facilitating that movement, or the government that mandated it. By seeking such a goal, facilitators will therefore be focusing on speeding up the process, making logistics easily manageable and reintegration – where necessary – as unproblematic as possible. While this can be understood as an impetus brought on by the high volume of returns operated by European states, questions of wellbeing, health, security and sustainability from the perspective of the individuals being displaced are being overlooked, especially when considering how standardized these processes have become.

Discourse therefore manages to foster a grey area between the creation of policies and the implementation of return. While this approach seems productive from a top-down perspective, the realities of migration remain too problematic to justify its continuation. And while feedback from the field therefore has to be conducted on the terms of its provided discourse, policy won’t have the possibility to compete with its own rhetoric until further research into this problem is produced. 


Maurits is a final year Ba. International Relations student at King’s College London. His particular interests of study and writing include refugee resettlement, migration, human rights law and international relations theory. 


Bilgiç, A. (2018). Migrant encounters with neo-colonial masculinity: producing European sovereignty through emotions, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 20:4, 542-562

Byrne, R.; Shacknove, A. (1996). The Safe Country Notion in European Asylum Law. Harvard Human Rights Journal 9, 185-228.

Cherti, M. (2013) Returning Irregular Immigrants: How Effective is the EU’s Response? Institute for Public Policy Research, February 2013

Dykstra, T. A. (2016). Refugee resettlement rhetoric: Investigating organizational practices of empowerment (Order No. 10162730)

European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) (2005), Increasing refugee participation in the field of voluntary return, 2005

European Migration Network (EMN) (2011). Programs and Strategies in the EU Member States fostering Assisted Return to and Reintegration in Third Countries, Brussels: EMN

Habermas, J. and Derrida, J. (2003). What Binds Europeans Together: A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in the Core of Europe, Constellations 10:3, 291–7 February 15, 2003

Joint Africa-EU Declaration on Migration and Development. (2006). Tripoli, November 22– 23.

Koch, A. (2014). The Politics and Discourse of Migrant Return: The Role of UNHCR and IOM in the Governance of Return, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40:6, 905-923

Latek, M. (2017). Briefing: Reintegration of returning migrants, European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), Member’s Research Service, PE 608.779, Brussels, October 2017

Lietaert, I., Broekaert, E., and Derluyn, I. (2017) From Social Instrument to Migration Management Tool: Assisted Voluntary Return Programmes – The Case of Belgium. Social Policy & Administration, 51: 961– 980

Ponzanesi, S., & Colpani, G. (2015). Postcolonial transitions in europe : Contexts, practices and politics.

Safe Country of Return Index (2015), Commission of the European Union

 Sassen, S. (1999). Beyond Sovereignty: De-Facto Transnationalism in Immigration Policy, European Journal of Migration and Law1:2, 177-198

UNHCR (1996). Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection. Geneva: UNHCR, Department of International Protection

Webber, F. (2011). How voluntary are voluntary returns? Race & Class52(4), 98-107

Zieck, M. (2004). Voluntary Repatriation: Paradigm, Pitfalls, Progress, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Volume 23, Issue 3, 1 October 2004, 33–54