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EU: States Increasingly Look At Paying Illegals To Go Home

(RFE/RL) EU states have long been a destination of choice for illegal economic migrants, as well as people seeking asylum from repressive governments. Often, immigration officials say, the two categories blur. People caught illegally entering a country may falsely apply for asylum in hopes of winning a last-minute chance to stay on. The result is large numbers of asylum cases tying up Western courts and large numbers of people who ultimately lose their asylum appeals but build new lives in their host countries in the meantime. EU states are increasingly looking to solve the problem by offering them money to go voluntarily.

LONDON, 17 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Anthony Browne follows immigration issues closely as a correspondent for the British daily “The Times” in London.

He says that most people filing for asylum today in Britain – as well as in other EU states – are bogus claimants.

Marriage Of Convenience

“The trouble is there’s quite an overlap between asylum and illegal immigration," Browne says. "There are an awful lot of claims. The government figures show roughly 80-90 percent of claims are actually unfounded and it’s beyond debate really in the U.K. now that probably the majority of asylum claims are actually by people who are seeking a route into the U.K. Other people come in and overstay on the tourist visas; some people get visas to study in language courses and they stay in the U.K. after that.”

Browne says that, beyond falsely seeking asylum, another favored way to try to stay in Britain is through a bogus marriage to a British citizen. London city officials estimate that as many as one in five marriages in the capital are shams to obtain residency.

As public concern grows over rising illegal immigration, several European countries have decided to offer voluntary repatriation schemes to the many who fail to prove they deserve asylum.

Getting A Fresh Start

The failed asylum-seekers receive either free work-requalification training or some money to help them establish a new life in their countries of origin. The money they receive could be used, for example, to set up their own small business at home.

Rumila Edward is a communication director at the International Organization for Migration, an NGO that closely tracks immigration-related issues. She says the voluntary repatriation programs differ among the EU countries.

“They’re all different and tailored towards that particular country," Edward says. "I know that Germany has a return scheme – they give cash – and some of the Scandinavian countries as well have return schemes. France does not have one at the moment.”

"I mean we don’t like the business of forcing people onto planes in handcuffs and what have you, because they refuse to return. We think it’s a much better option to try and help people and assist them."

Edward says Britain is currently experimenting with what may be the most generous payment scheme. Since the start of the year, a test program has been offering £3,000 ($5,500) per person to failed asylum seekers who want to go home, plus the cost of their journey back.

The test program’s incentives total to three times the existing cash payment offered by London for voluntary departures. But the government still considers the amount inexpensive compared to the cost of deportation.

Cheaper Than Deportation

Forced deportations can cost up to £11,000 ($20,000) per person. This is because once the government decides to deport someone, it has to pay for his or her accommodation and other support and food until the day of the deportation, as well as the costs of legal services, security personnel, and transport.

As a measure of how difficult it can be to deport people, the government estimates that 239,000 failed asylum seekers refused to leave Britain between 1997 and 2004. That is about half the number of people who applied for asylum during the same period, and many of them still have cases pending in appeals courts.

Edward says that last year 2,599 people took a cash offer and went back home. It is still too early to say how well the increased cash payments will work, but the government hopes that significantly more people will take advantage of them. Edward says failed asylum seekers are now phoning and showing interest in the scheme, despite the fact that it has run only for a month.

Edward explains that there are a number of reasons why people want to take up the government offer.

"They’re just fed up of the U.K., or there is illness in the family, or they’re ill and they want to return back home, or there is one of the family members ill and they want to return back to them," she says. "Or the situation in their country could have improved – we’ve a lot of Iraqis who are returning at the moment."

Helping People To Stand On Their Own

Edward concludes that other people simply come to the end of their asylum process, and having exhausted their appeals, they feel they want to return home, rather than wait until they would be forcibly removed.

Other charitable organizations agree that compared to deportations and any similar previous initiatives, the new increased payments markedly improve the chances of the repatriates to lead a better life back home.

"Much the best way for them to return to their countries of origin is to support them in the process," says Tim Finch, director of communications at the Refugee Council in London. "I mean we don’t like the business of forcing people onto planes in handcuffs and what have you, because they refuse to return. We think it’s a much better option to try and help people and assist them.”

Also satisfied with the new scheme are the specialists at Choices, a program run by Refugee Action, based in Manchester.

Time To Share Experiences

Aidan Hallett is deputy manager of the program, which helps people enlist in voluntary-departure programs. He says the next step is to coordinate such programs across the EU.

“Organizations like ourselves across Europe are trying to make contact and talk to each other about what’s happening in our different countries, so that we can share experience," Hallett says.

Hallett says coordinating the programs would make the schemes better known among people who can benefit from them.