Return in Dignity, Return to What? (2008)

Review of the Voluntary Return Programme to Afghanistan

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Return with Dignity, Return to What? Review of the Voluntary Return Programme to Afghanistan (pdf, 2,8 MB)


This report was commissioned by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, Utlendingsdirektoratet (UDI), to assess the programme for voluntary return to Afghanistan. The programme is open to Afghan nationals whose asylum applications in Norway are pending or have
been rejected, or Afghans who have been granted the right to stay in Norway but wish to return to Afghanistan. The report focuses on the return programme established in 2006 by the Norwegian government in cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Norwegian NGOs. The programme includes information and counselling in Norway, as well as cash payments and reintegration assistance upon return to Afghanistan. 

The report is based on a document review, semi-structured interviews with Afghan returnees, as well as interviews with staff involved in preparing or implementing the programme in Norway and Afghanistan, and with other relevant officials and organisations. Fieldwork in Afghanistan was for the most part conducted in two rounds (October 2007 and February 2008). A comparative review of similar programs in Denmark and the United Kingdom is included.

The team consisted of Arne Strand (team leader), Torunn Wimpelmann Chaudhary and Astri Suhrke, all from the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI); Kristian Berg Harpviken from the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO); and Akbar Sarwari and Arghawan Akbari, independent
Afghan consultants.


In April 2006, the Norwegian government launched an extended return programme for Afghan nationals, in line with the tripartite agreement between Norway, UNHCR and the Afghan government to regulate the return of Afghans from Norway to Afghanistan. Central to the return programme was IRRANA: Information, Return and Reintegration of Afghan Nationals to Afghanistan, implemented by IOM missions in Norway and Afghanistan. IOM’s generic assisted voluntary return programme (VARP) had provided travel assistance to all nationalities returning
from Norway since 2002. However, IRRANA, available only to Afghans, had additional components: a cash grant of 15000 NOK, extended information and counselling both in Norway and in Afghanistan, as well as reintegration assistance upon return. In addition, a further information component was established through a project run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). NRC staff, under the organisation’s Information and Counselling for Return and Repatriation (INCOR) programme, travelled to asylum centres with Afghan residents in order to provide information and counselling about the situation in Afghanistan and returning with IRRANA.

The launch of the return programme coincided with the decision of Norwegian authorities to start forced removals of failed Afghan asylum seekers to Afghanistan by. It was hoped that the return programme would go some way towards encouraging voluntary return. However, the numbers of forced returns proved to be considerably higher than the number of voluntary returns. By mid-March 2008, 69 adults had returned through IRRANA, whereas at least three times as many had been forcibly returned by the police.


During fieldwork, the research team interviewed 29 of the 64 adult IRRANA participants who had by then returned to Afghanistan. The remaining returnees could not be interviewed for various reasons. A few were living in areas that could not be accessed for security reasons, or were
confirmed as having left the country. Around half could not be reached by IOM, which contacted returnees on behalf of the research team. The team collected data on the functioning and impact of the reintegration programme, as well as the broader outline of the returnees’ migration biographies (flight, exile, return and reintegration). The study focused on two sets of issues: (i) the decision of the IRRANA participants to return through the programme, and (ii) the short-term reintegration process after return.

Whilst the return programme offered a dignified way of returning to Afghanistan, there was no evidence that the additional components offered by IRRANA - the cash payment and the reintegration support - had encouraged the respondents to return. The decision to return was made
on other grounds. The majority of the respondents wanted to avoid forced deportation, often stressing its indignity, or expressed a wish to respect Norwegian law. Others had friends who had been forcibly removed and were certain that they would be deported unless they left on their own volition. A minority (around one in five of the respondents) chose to return through IRRANA before receiving the final decision on their asylum application. This group stated that the uncertainty and passivity of prolonged waiting in asylum centres was the main reason for returning.

The choice of voluntary return was therefore shaped by factors other than the IRRANA components. When prompted, none of the informants said that the cash payment or reintegration support had been a factor in the decision to return. This is consistent with findings from similar
programmes elsewhere. However, none of the respondents appeared destitute. Most had been able to accommodate themselves with their families, at least for the short term. Most had funded their initial travel to Norway through support from family and friends, and seemed able to access support networks after they returned as well.

The returnees that the team succeeded in locating in Afghanistan through IOM may not be representative of the larger group of IRRANA participants or its wider target group (i.e. all rejected asylum seekers). For the latter there are no data, but it is noteworthy that the 29 persons that the team succeeded in reaching in Afghanistan were comparatively older, more educated and had a larger share of married persons than the total group of IRRANA participants. It is likely that many of the IRRANA returnees who could not be reached had already left Afghanistan again, possibly being younger, unmarried and less integrated in local support networks, and therefore more likely to re-migrate.

The information work in Norway was only partially successful in conveying the content of the IRRANA programme. Only a small minority of the participants interviewed had reasonably complete knowledge of the programme. The impact of INCOR’s Afghanistan project likewise was
slight - only two respondents said they recalled hearing about this project, or NRC /INCOR as an organisation, from their time in Norway. The limited impact could well reflect lack of interest among the asylum seekers. Information programmes about return would not seem very relevant in a situation where their main concern was to explore possibilities to remain in Norway or to escape from the uncertainty and passivity of life in the asylum centre. 

The travel component of the programme was found to function well, and returnees were able to claim their cash grant from IOM without difficulty when arriving in Afghanistan. Upon arrival, returnees were also entitled to reintegration support. Implemented by IOM’s missions in Afghanistan, the reintegration programme was built on similar IOM programmes elsewhere and in principle included three options: training, job referral or a small business start-up grant. All IRRANA participants chose the business option, which was the only formalised alternative of the three. Several respondents told the team, however, that they would have preferred job referral or training as they had no experience and no inclination to start up a business. Yet they were recommended to start a business by programme staff, who seemed to have focused on this option. 

The business programme itself had several shortcomings. In a few cases, moderately successful small business enterprises were set up with the support of the programme, but the majority of businesses either seemed to exist only on paper, had been running for less than a couple of months, or had closed down shortly after being established. One reason was that the support was quite small (10 000 NOK in kind), which the respondents stressed was insufficient for starting a sustainable business. Moreover, several returnees had no business experience and the programme provided little advice or training.

For many participants, the business option was mainly a mechanism for converting the business grant into cash. Whilst support was given in the form of goods or equipment for a given business, many returnees appeared to have sold this quickly to partners or other businesses before closing down or exiting the business. While observed in other return programmes as well, such practices – where the business is only a detour to a cash contribution - represent significant transaction costs and waste for both the programme and the returnees. The process also gives a false picture of how the returnees are faring, hence distorts the basis for formulating effective aid programmes for reintegration.

An overarching theme that emerged from both the respondents’ experience while in Norway and their reintegration situation was the potential benefits of a training or skills development scheme during their stay in Norway. Educational programmes would help focus and structure the daily lives of the asylum seekers, thus reducing stress and helping many to cope with a difficult situation. Enhanced skills would help the Afghans reintegrate more easily if they return, and likewise help them adapt in Norway if granted asylum. For those who return, the skills and qualifications acquired would generate a sense of achievement likely to boost confidence in their ability to reintegrate. In a broader development perspective, training would also benefit Afghanistan as a society, equipping those returning with skills to contribute towards the reconstruction of the country.

Denmark has an extensive training programme for asylum seekers that seems to work well. The programme provides skills that are relevant in Denmark as well as in the countries of origin. Similarly, the time the asylum seekers spend in Norway could be used productively for education,
specific skills improvement or language training (primarily English).

The report also examined some broader aspects of the returnees’ situation. Two points emerged as the main challenges faced by the returnees: security and a lack of economic opportunities. While most of the respondents had cited insecurity as a main reason for leaving Afghanistan a smaller number (one out of every six) said they were worried about their personal security upon return. However, almost all respondents expressed a strong concern with the general security situation in Afghanistan, saying that they did not feel safe. The lack of economic opportunity was another strong worry. Only one respondent had been able to secure some kind of employment, and while some were running a business and were able to make some profit, most were living with the support of friends and relatives for the time being, or drawing on diminishing savings from Norway.

Most of the respondents interviewed in Afghanistan stated their intention to re-migrate. Some cited security concerns, but most emphasised the lack of economic opportunities. Those who said they would remain in Afghanistan were mostly either running moderately successful businesses, or otherwise had access to means of making a living through family networks.


Based on these findings, the report makes several recommendations on how to strengthen the return programme to Afghanistan (see chapter 12 for the full version). 

Institutionalise training in Norway
In addition to strengthening the reintegration programme in Afghanistan, training while the asylum seekers are waiting for their application to be processed has many potential benefits. If properly developed, skills training can contribute to sustainable reintegration and reduce the propensity to remigrate. The Danish programme is comprehensive and can serve as an inspiration. UDI should examine appropriate options and models for such a programme.

Reconsider the information work in Norway
The partial success of the information component of IRRANA, as well as the evidently low impact of INCOR’s Afghanistan project means that the information component of the returned programme should be reviewed more closely

Strengthen the reintegration programme

    1. Develop the business option: Both programme staff and returnees considered the size of the reintegration support to be too small, particularly as a basis for starting a business. The two other countries whose programmes were reviewed in the report, the UK and Denmark, either have larger reintegration support or a comprehensive training programme prior to return.
    2. Develop job referral, training and cash payments as alternative options: The prevalence of ‘sham businesses’ suggests that the reintegration programme needs to be restructured.There should be a cash distribution option for those who are confident about managing their own reintegration, and a more structured alternative for those who prefer more extensive advice and follow-up. The latter option could consist of a choice of training, job referral and business establishment, but training and job referral need to be developed and formalised in order to constitute real alternatives to the business option.
    3. Increase advice and counselling: For those who return with few support networks and connections, reintegration programmes can be an important source of advice. This aspect of the programme should be further developed, both with regard to the returnees’ general reintegration situation, as well as to advice on establishing a business.


Improve monitoring and documentation of the reintegration programme Regardless of the structure of the reintegration programme, the managing organisation should establish systematic routines for monitoring the impact of the various programme components. Monitoring and documentation is necessary for organisational learning, and will enable internal and external programme reviews to draw on a solid data base.

Utført av: Chr. Michelsen Institutt

Besilt av: UDI

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