DW: This year some 55,000 migrants will leave Germany voluntarily – far more than last year. Many of those people come from the Western Balkans. What has prompted them to return home?
Marion Lich: That differs from nationality to nationality. Many people from the Western Balkans got caught up in the rumor that one could work in Germany if one simply applied for asylum. It spread across Albania and Kosovo like wildfire. Shortly thereafter, a wave of immigrants left those countries for Germany. When they arrived, they quickly became disillusioned. They realized that the rumors were totally unfounded and wanted to return home as soon as possible – at least most did.
It is a different story with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran. They thought that they would immediately be given work and lodging. Some reported that they had heard asylum seekers received cars, even houses. Such lies were likely spread by deceitful groups of human traffickers. The men that are here are completely disillusioned and want to return to their families as soon as possible, because they see that they cannot make it here on their own.
How do you help these people with their return?
The most important thing is to start with a comprehensive consultation. At that point we can determine why a person wants to return home and if there are any other alternatives. Once we have clarified that, we move on to basic aid. We use funds from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to pay for a return flight, and there is also an additional travel grant. Then it becomes an issue of the individual needs of the person in question. If he or she has an illness or handicap, then they need special medicine or medical aid.
We advise not only those people that are being deported, but also people that have lived in Germany for a long period of time – among them even people who have been granted asylum and could stay, but want to return home voluntarily. Of course they need career perspectives in their home countries, too. If they have the opportunity to employ themselves by opening a small shop, a market stand or in the agricultural sector – we can help them with that as well.
Doesn’t such financial aid create false incentives? Say attracting immigrants that only come here to gain access to that financial aid?
That is certainly a legitimate concern. That is why I am opposed to the repatriation rewards that the federal government is considering. Cash alone can indeed be an incentive. Repatriation advice is not defined by cash but rather individual consultation. Money is gone quickly. The only alternative that I can see is to offer real occupational alternatives for people so that they can recognize real long-term perspectives in their home countries. We don’t try to persuade anyone. We aren’t simply trying to get them out of the country, but rather trying to advise our clients with their best interests in mind, so that they can make an informed decision.
You started the repatriation advisory office Coming Home in Munich back in 1996. How has your work changed over the last 20 years?
In 1996, we were confronted with the problem that more than 20,000 Bosnian war refugees were housed in Munich and they needed, or wanted, to return home when the war ended. But many had lost everything. If they had apartments back home, they had either been looted or destroyed. We began with donation drives and then started with donation transports to Bosnia shortly thereafter. Then came the Kosovo crisis. We helped refugees from Kosovo, too. Then other groups of refugees began arriving from Africa and Asia. At that point we decided to make repatriation support a permanent institution. That was the right decision, because sadly the subject has become timelier than ever over the last two years.
How do you help with reintegration in home countries?
Support from home countries is an important part of our consultation chain. Reintegration works especially well in places where we have organizations that can help those returning. Our partner organizations can offer support when it comes to practical everyday issues. In Kosovo, for instance, we partner with workers’ welfare organizations.
I think it’s crucial for the German government to focus on improving structures that can improve peoples’ economic chances in their home countries, so that they do not have to embark on these often pointless and dire journeys. Meanwhile, for example, Germany’s Ministry of Development has set up an office in Kosovo where staff advise locals on how to legally travel to Germany and find employment.
Marion Lich is the founder and director of Coming Home, a repatriation advisory office in Munich. It was the first repatriation and reintegration aid office in Germany. Lich and her consulting team organize travel out of the country that is financed with funds from the International Organization for Migration. Beyond that, her office organizes funds to cover further travel expenses and start-up aid between 300 and 500 euros ($313 – $522), depending on country of origin.