There are two main forms of return migration: voluntary return and forced return. Data on forced return are usually collected by national and international statistical offices, border protection and immigration law enforcement agencies. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) collects data on assisted voluntary return and reintegration programmes that it implements worldwide.
IOM Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration and Voluntary Humanitarian Return in 2021
There is no universally accepted definition of return migration.
Return is “in a general sense, the act or process of going back or being taken back to the point of departure. This could be within the territorial boundaries of a country, as in the case of returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) and demobilized combatants; or between a country of destination or transit and a country of origin, as in the case of migrant workers, refugees or asylum seekers” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
Two main types of return migration are defined as follows:
1. Voluntary return - is “the assisted or independent return to the country of origin, transit or another country based on the voluntary decision of the returnee” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
Voluntary returns can be either spontaneous or assisted:
- Spontaneous return is “the voluntary, independent return of a migrant or a group of migrants to their country of origin, usually without the support of States or other international or national assistance” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
- Assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) is the "administrative, logistical or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country or country of transit and who decide to return to their country of origin" (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
- Voluntary humanitarian return (VHR) is the application of assisted voluntary return and reintegration principles in humanitarian settings and “often represents a life-saving measure for migrants who are stranded or in detention” (IOM, 2020).
2. Forced return - “a migratory movement which, although the drivers can be diverse, involves force, compulsion, or coercion.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
See our thematic page on COVID-19 and migration data for data on return migration due to COVID-19.
While millions of migrants return to their country of origin every year, not all returns are necessarily recorded. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic posed considerable challenges to return migration because of lockdowns, travel restrictions, limited consular services, and other containment measures, and had a decelerating effect on return activities. In 2021, many countries lifted travel restrictions and different types of migration, including return migration, resumed but not to pre-pandemic levels.
The number of beneficiaries of IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) in 2021 increased by 17 per cent (from 37,043 in 2020 to 43,428 in 2021) (IOM, 2022). The number of beneficiaries of voluntary humanitarian return increased by 57 per cent, from 4,038 in 2020 to 6,367 in 2021 (Ibid.).
The top 5 host/transit countries for AVRR in 2021 were: Niger (10,573), Germany (6,785), Libya (4,332), Greece (2,736), and Morocco (2,372) (Ibid.).
The European Economic Area (EEA) and the United Kingdom (UK)
During the pandemic, Frontex, the European Union Border and Coast Guard Agency, reported that travel restrictions and a decline in consular services had a decelerating effect on return migration (Frontex, 2021).
Around 291,000 irregular migrants were given a “return decision” by European Union (EU) Member States in 2020 but only 61,951people were effectively returned (either forcibly or voluntarily) (Frontex, 2021). In 2021, 18,300 people returned with Frontex’s support (Frontex, 2022).
In 2019, 19,000 people left the UK via enforced or voluntary return, the lowest annual level since 2014 (Walsh, 2020). There were 7,400 enforced returns in 2018, 22% fewer than in the previous year – and the lowest annual level since 2004 – due to changes in the immigration systems, such as a reduced use of detention (Ibid.). Voluntary returns still account for the biggest share of all returns (Ibid.). COVID-19 has significantly impacted returns and all categories of return declined in the first quarter of 2020 (ibid.).
A total of 16,993 migrants were assisted to return from the EEA in 2021, which accounted for 34 per cent of the total global caseload (IOM, 2022). Most of the beneficiaries were assisted to return from Germany (6,785, or 40% of the total number of beneficiaries assisted from the EEA). Next top countries were Greece (2,736), Belgium (1,665), the Netherlands (1,448), and Austria (1,356) (Ibid.).
South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia (SEEECA)
Historically, the region had mostly countries of origin, but the movements have recently become more diverse, and it has countries of origin, transit as well as destination. In 2021, a total of 2,757 migrants were assisted to return from the SEEECA region (Ibid.). Countries in the region, especially the Western Balkans, have increasingly become transit countries for migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Asia on their way to Western Europe. The Russian Federation has been the main destination country though the Ukraine-Russian conflict will likely have impact on this. Also, intraregional migration remains key in the region even though most outflows are towards the European Union (IOM, 2020).
Central America, North America and the Caribbean
In 2021, there were 742 cases of AVRR from Central and North America and the Caribbean, or more than double the cases in 2020 (359) (IOM, 2022). 37 percent of the cases were children. Like in 2018 to 2020, Mexico was the top country from which the majority of migrants (64% or 473) in the region were returned (Ibid.). The next top host countries were Guatemala (85), Honduras (61), El Salvador (52) and Panama (38) (Ibid.).
In 2021, a total of 17 migrants returned from South America; half were female and half were male, but 30 per cent of the cases were children (Ibid.). Such a low number of migrants returning from the region is explained by the fact that governments in the region placed regularization options through the application of general or specific migration instruments for regional and extraregional nationals, such as the Residence Agreement for Nationals of the States Parties of the Associated States of the Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur – MERCOSUR) (IOM, 2019). The region is also marked by significant intraregional migration flows, which account for about 70 per cent of the immigration in the region (IOM, 2020). In the last few years, South America has seen a significant increase of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, prompting countries to liberalize intraregional migration in order to better support them (IOM, 2020).
Asia and the Pacific
In 2021, a total of 753 migrants were assisted to return from Asia and the Pacific region (IOM, 2022). As in 2018-2020, the majority of return flows from the region in 2021were intraregional. The top 5 host countries in the region were: Australia (248), Malaysia (186), Indonesia (107), Japan (39) China (35) (Ibid.).
The Middle East and North Africa
In 2021, a total of 12,588 migrants (6,221 migrants assisted under AVRR and 6,367 migrants assisted under VHR) were returned from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, representing a 75 per cent increase from the total number of returns in 2020; 78 per cent of the cases were male and the rest were female (Ibid.). The top 5 host countries in the regions were: Libya (4,332), Morocco (2,377), Yemen (2,035), Algeria (1,972) and Tunisia (975) (Ibid.).
West and Central Africa
In 2021, 13,227 returns from the West and Central Africa (WCA) region accounted for 27 per cent of the global AVRR caseload (Ibid.). The Niger alone accounted for approximately 80 per cent (10,573) of all migrants assisted to return from the region (Ibid.). The majority of international migrants in WCA were intraregional, which confirms the trend of increasing numbers of returns taking place from transit countries. In 2021, West and Central Africa remained the main region of origin with a share of 45% of all migrant assisted to voluntarily return by IOM (Ibid.). The three main countries of origin within the region were Guinea with 5,165 returns, Mali (4,453) and Nigeria (3,322) (Ibid.).
East and Horn of Africa
In East and Horn of Africa, a total of 2,100 migrants were assisted to return from the region in 2021, more than double the number of migrants assisted to returned in 2020 (Ibid.). The majority of the beneficiaries (74%) assisted to return were male. The majority of those assisted were also from Djibouti, representing around 43.4 per cent of the total regional caseload, or 911cases. The second biggest host country in the region was the Suda, approximately 25 per cent of AVRRs from the region or 535 cases (Ibid.).
In 2021, a total of 618 migrants were assisted to return from Southern Africa; of these, 80 percent were male and the rest were female (Ibid.). The top five host countries in this region from which migrants were assisted to return from were South Africa (237), Malawi (139), Zambia (132), Zimbabwe (58) and Namibia (24) (Ibid.).
As the largest global provider of Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) and Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programmes, IOM collects voluntary return data on a regular basis. IOM data include the number of participants, host and origin country, as well as sex, age and migration status in the host country prior to return. Since 2010, IOM has published key data on the AVRR website (IOM, 2018, IOM, 2017; IOM, 2016; IOM, 2015). IOM data also include information on assisted migrants by specific vulnerability (unaccompanied migrant children, migrants with health-related needs and victims of trafficking).
Data on returned or “repatriated” refugees – i.e. refugees who have returned to their country of origin spontaneously or in an organized manner (sometimes with help of IOM’s AVRR programmes)– are collected respectively by IOM and UNHCR.
Data on the outflows of the foreign population from selected OECD countries are collected by OECD’S Continuous Reporting System on International Migration (SOPEMI) and published in the annual International Migration Outlook report.
Since 2014, Eurostat has provided the following data for 21 EU Member States on return migration of people who are third-country nationals:
- Third country nationals ordered to leave - annual data (rounded);
- Third country nationals returned following an order to leave - annual data (rounded);
- Third-country nationals who have left the territory by type of return and citizenship;
- Third-country nationals who have left the territory by type of assistance received and citizenship.
Data on forced and voluntary return from EU Member States and the three Schengen Associated Countries (Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) are also published in the Frontex Risk Analysis Reports.
The Return Migration and Development Platform from the European University Institute promotes exchange and knowledge-sharing about return migrants’ realities and the contexts of their experiences.
Data on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s “enforcement and removal operations” (ERO), including forced returns, are summarized in its annual reports.
Central and South America
Data on return migration from and to Central and South (and Northern) American countries are collected by OECD’s Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI) and published in the International Migration in the Americas reports.
The Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection publishes annual data on forced and voluntary return from Australia.
The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, with the support of IOM, recently started the implementation of the Afghan Returnee Information System (ARIS), a digital registration process for both undocumented migrants and refugee returnees crossing to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran. IOM publishes these data here.
Some countries and/or organizations have collected data to monitor return migration and the outcomes of return programmes, for example:
- Four EU Member States – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic and Norway – have collected data on post-return, monitoring returnees to identify longer-term outcomes.
- Switzerland: IOM is tracking outcomes for returnees from Switzerland to Nigeria whom it assisted in 2015, at roughly 9 months post-return.
- In the UK in 2013, the charity Refugee Action compiled a small study of the post-return experiences of their beneficiaries.
A few research studies have assessed the sustainability of return and reintegration programmes. For example, Koser and Kuschminder (2015) developed a Return and Reintegration Index which was tested on 156 returnees in eight countries of origin. Strand et al. (2016) measured sustainable return based on the perception of returnees from Norway to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq and Kosovo1, and ICMPD (2015) conducted a study to evaluate the sustainability of AVR programmes from Austria to Kosovo.1Back to top
Data strengths and limitations
Data on forced return and on voluntary return are scattered across different data sources and are often incomplete or only partially publicly available - For example, several countries that implement AVRR programmes (either under IOM or government auspices) are not reported on in the Eurostat database (e.g. Germany, The Netherlands, and the UK). In addition, voluntary departures are usually not tracked. In order to improve this, the EU is implementing the Integrated Return Management Application (IRMA), a secure web-platform for integrating all EU return activities.
There is a large data gap on post-return data mainly due to the lack of definitions and established indicators for measuring “reintegration”. However, in January 2016, the EMN released guidelines for the monitoring and evaluation of AVR(R) programmes that provide a list of questions and indicators to be included in post-return monitoring activities.
More recently in 2017, the DFID-funded MEASURE Project (Mediterranean Sustainable Reintegration), a pilot project that fosters the sustainability of reintegration support in the framework of Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration in the Mediterranean, led to the development of a set of 15 field-tested indicators and a scoring system to measurement of reintegration outcomes and improving understanding of returnees’ progress towards sustainability. These indicators are based on a revised definition of sustainable reintegration in the context of return, (IOM, 2017) and therefore relate to the three economic, social and psychosocial dimensions of reintegration. The scoring system allows comparison of trends in returnees’ reintegration across country contexts and over time.
1 References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).Back to top