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Britain and I.O.M. Criticized for Putting Refugees at Risk

Ambrose Musiyiwa, Leicester, Britain, June 18, 2006

"Instead of using the stick of enforced destitution and poverty to discourage asylum seekers, the Home Office have started using carrots." (Photo: Alessandro Abbonizio / AFP-Getty Images)

The British government and the International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.) have been criticized for returning people to war zones, dictatorships and areas of famine.

Under the Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Program (V.A.R.R.P.) run by the I.O.M. and funded by the British government's Home Office and the European Refugee Fund, asylum seekers are being offered financial incentives to get them to return to their countries of origin.

Between January and April this year, a total of 1,956 asylum seekers took up the £3,000 that is being offered and returned to countries which include Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Immigration minister, Liam Byrne said, "A significant amount of work continues to promote voluntary returns, and there is a high level of interest to take up the scheme."

The Home Office publicized the scheme by writing to all the 54,000 asylum seekers whose applications for refuge are still being processed and who are currently receiving benefits and accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service.

The scheme was also advertised in government-funded centers that have contact with refugees and asylum seekers as well as in all immigration detention, reporting and removal centers.

Former immigration minister, Tony McNulty said the £3,000 that is being offered asylum seekers to make them leave Britain voluntarily was "good value for money" when compared with the £11,000 cost per person of a forced deportation.

No Borders Glasgow, a support group for refugees and immigrants, reported that Kath Sainsbury of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (N.C.A.D.C.) described the voluntary assisted return and re-integration program as a cynical bribe.

"Instead of using the stick of enforced destitution and poverty to discourage asylum seekers, the Home Office have started using carrots — a scheme offering cash to asylum seekers to give up their claims, but no guarantees on either their safety or whether they'll get the money if they do return," Sainsbury said.

She added that giving people incentives does not make them safe.

"We know that in some countries, failed asylum seekers are put in prison on return and can only secure their release if they pay a bribe. We could now be exposing them to the possibility of further extortion if there is a perception that they have money," Sainsbury said.

At a conference organized by the I.O.M. that was held in London in May, I.O.M. chief of mission, Jan Wilder revealed that he was aware of a Zimbabwean returnee who was questioned "for a while" by that country's dreaded secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization.

"It was a woman from Bulawayo in March 2004. We brought this incident to the attention of the government. The government was satisfactorily responsive," Wilder said.

Wilder, however, would not discuss security issues despite repeated questions about the safety of returnees.

Established in 1951, the I.O.M. describes itself as "a pro-active, responsive and results oriented intergovernmental organization dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration worldwide by serving the policy and program needs of governments and migrants."

No BordersGlasgow observed that in recent years, the I.O.M. has moved from managing the movement of economic migrants to assisting states to control forced migrants.

"Unlike the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the I.O.M. has no humanitarian remit and its move into controlling the movement of people seeking asylum has raised alarm among human rights, refugee and aid agencies," the N.C.A.D.C. said.

In May 2003, Amnesty International criticized the role of the I.O.M. as an "alternative agency for states" where states prefer to avoid their human rights obligations.

"Given that I.O.M. does not have a protection mandate for its work with refugees and displaced people, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recommend that I.O.M. should refrain from taking a role in situations which fall squarely under the protection mandate of other international organizations, such as the UNHCR," Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement.

Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, coordinator of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (I.C.V.A.), pointed out that in 1996, the I.O.M. was asked to truck a group of 6,000 Zairian Tutsis from North Kivu, where extremist Hutus were creating a Hutu-land and carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing among Tutsis. The I.O.M. brought the Tutsis across the boarder to Rwanda thereby aiding the extremist Hutus achieve their aims.

Two years earlier, in Rwanda, between April and July 1994, extremist Hutus slaughtered an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who opposed the ethnic cleansing.

Van Mierop said, "much more must be done in order to increase I.O.M.'s accountability especially when it sees itself as providing 'assisted and orderly migration services.'"

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