Publication

Between a rock and a hard place

Twenty years old the UK’s Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programme for irregular migrants should be in the prime of youth. Instead it seems worn out, old before its time, unloved by all. Yet the UK’s need for it has arguably never been greater. It is time for a reboot.

We need to talk about AVR again, and out of those discussions we can leverage the UK’s unique experience of AVR to launch a much more attractive and effective AVR programme. A reconsidered, reconstituted and rebooted AVR programme can use the formidable array of practical knowledge and experience available in the UK in this area to achieve increased migrant returns, increased migrant welfare and increased public confidence.

This Report is the SMF’s contribution to that process; considering the lessons from the past, analysing the program’s current state and challenges, and making practical recommendations for the future vision and operation of the programme.

It is not just that both financially and operationally, on a relative basis AVR seems an attractive option versus both forced return and non-return. But as importantly a significant amount of AVR’s positive potential for change comes from the cooperation and partnerships it drives, indeed demands, within and across government departments and civil society, and from the contribution it can make to a much better and more nuanced understanding of the migrant’s perspective; of migration choices, decisions and patterns, and the different drivers of migration and return. An AVR program can confound preconceptions, and challenge prevailing immigration control assumptions, harnessing, instead of cutting across, the potential energy of migratory flows to work with the grain of some migrants’ motivations and aspirations to return.

And while it is widely assumed that AVR is unpopular with the UK public, in the context of the alternatives for addressing the challenges of the irregular migrant population in the UK AVR may actually represent a more practical and realistic middle-ground approach to immigration control which is more, not less, aligned with the public’s preferences.

But to realise its full potential, significant reform is needed to the current incarnation of the AVR program in the UK. Trust needs to be rebuilt, partnerships rekindled, animated by an acknowledgement from all sides that immigration control and the best interests of the migrant are not always necessarily in conflict.

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