Each year thousands of migrants, unable or unwilling to stay in the host country, choose to voluntarily return to their country of origin. Sustainable voluntary return and reintegration underpins effective migration management respecting the rights and dignity of the migrants involved. Voluntary return is recognised as being preferred over other return modes and is thus a fundamental component of return management.

There is a wide range of policies and programmes intended to support sustainable voluntary return, supported by origin and destination countries. These include programmes that aim to assist migrants opting for return to their country of origin, by enhancing their economic and social reintegration prospects. Such programmes are often facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for example through its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) and Return of Qualified Nationals (RQN) programmes. Criteria and conditions for these programmes vary significantly, and it is not clear which settings are the most effective in enabling sustainable return and reintegration. Monitoring, evaluation and research remain fundamental in confirming the efficiency of the programmes and identifying possible means of improvement to ensure the best assistance possible. However, very few studies are available on the topic and important gaps in knowledge still exist. Therefore, the “Comparative Research on the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration of Migrants”, carried out by the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance in collaboration with IOM and funded by the Australian government, is unquestionably an important milestone in research.

Aims and Objectives

The project aimed to inform policies and programs for assisting the voluntary return and reintegration of migrants, including irregular migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers. The project included three objectives:

(1) Analysis of the migrant return decision, including factors that motivate or impede irregular migrants from returning voluntarily;

(2) Development of a framework for defining and measuring sustainability of approaches to voluntary return and reintegration;

(3) Assessment of what factors determine sustainable return and reintegration.


The research was conducted by an independent research team based at the University of Maastricht.

The project adopted a fourfold methodology:

(1) An extensive review of academic and policy literature on return and reintegration, including existing evaluations of return programmes;

(2) Analysis of IOM and selected destination country returns data;

(3) Interviews with potential returnees and key stakeholders in Australia, Greece, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom;

(4) Interviews with returnees and key stakeholders during field visits to:  Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Vietnam.

In total 273 migrants have been interviewed in the above-listed 15 countries.


The project report was launched in Geneva on January 16th, 2015 in Geneva. Key outputs include the following:  

The decision to return:

Interviews were conducted in both transit and destination countries with migrants to obtain more information regarding the decision-making process. The caseload included three different groups, migrants that decided to return, a second group that opted against AVRR and a third one that was still indecisive. The Research shows that for the migrants interviewed a mix of factors influenced the decision, among them structural, individual and social factors such as policy interventions.

The subsequent  findings can be highlighted:

  • Conditions in the country of destination had a strong influence on the decision to return (e.g. legal status, access to employment). However, while unfavorable conditions in the destination country may trigger return, the study also points out that at the same time they have a negative impact on the level of reintegration in the country of origin.
  • Conditions in the country of origin on the contrary are of relatively low importance.
  • Policy interventions (incentives/ disincentives) also had a comparably low impact.
  • A combination of individual and social factors (that go beyond the possibility of policy interventions) had the highest influence on the return decision.

Definition of sustainable return:

Due to a lack of consensus on the meaning of “sustainable return”, the researchers developed a definition to be used throughout the study:

‘The individual has reintegrated into the economic, social, and cultural processes of the country of origin and feels that they are in an environment of safety and security upon return.’

Development of framework for defining and measuring sustainable reintegration:

One major output of the project is the return and reintegration index to measure the level of reintegration. It includes 3 dimensions with several variables for each one:

  • Economic: employment, income sources, perceived situation, debt, land/housing
  • Socio-cultural: local/transnational networks, local participation, perceptions, membership in groups
  • Political-security: perceived safety at home/in the community, trust in the government, access to justice, experience of harassment

Research Findings

Applying the developed definition of sustainability and analytical framework with a flexible index led to several findings: (i) Plans to re-migrate are not a valid proxy for measuring sustainability. Some returnees plan indeed to re-migrate while they have financial resources and a social network in the country of origin while persons struggling financially see their future in their country. (ii) The perceptions of the migrants regarding their level of reintegration are as important as more objective aspects in order to understand why a return is sustainable or not (cf. previous example of re-migration). (iii) The less favorable the conditions are in the destination country, the less likely is sustainable reintegration. (iv) Returning to the community of origin and previous social network contributes to a sustainable return.


The research acknowledges several gaps and limitations: (i) While subjective aspects are fundamental to measure the sustainability of a return, at the same time they impede an accurate assessment of the situation. (ii) While all cases received some kind of reintegration assistance, this information was not analyzed in the study, thus the impact of the reintegration assistance provided remained unclear. (iii) The study focused on beneficiaries of AVRR only. Future research would need to also include returnees that did not receive any assistance such as the local population in order to determine the baseline for integration/reintegration in a specific context and measure the impact of AVRR. (iv) Findings are not representative due to low caseload per country. Further research is thus needed in order to guide policy interventions.


The study is a good example of cooperation between a governmental actor, an international organization and a research institute that is worth replicating which not only helped to access data but also feed into a more comprehensive analysis based on the experiences of the different actors involved. It also contributed to knowledge management through identifying gaps and proposals for further studies on AVRR. Finally, it supports IOM in further strengthening monitoring and evaluation of AVRR projects and opens the way to expanding research on the topic for the benefit of all stakeholders, donors, IOM, but especially the migrants themselves so that we can continue improving our assistance and enhancing their reintegration prospects.