On 16 May 2014, we presented a joint paper for a COMPAS breakfast briefing, discussing some of our initial findings from the research project, Tried and Trusted: The role of NGOs in the Assisted Voluntary Return Programme for asylum seekers and irregular migrants. The paper examined the evolving relationship between refugee, asylum, and community organisations and the Home Office and in particular, whether the receipt of government funding for the delivery of government services affects the level of advocacy within the NGO sector. Whilst academic literature has, particularly since the introduction and delivery of National Asylum Support Service, presented a rather binary and often sceptical view of this relationship, our findings suggest that a more nuanced debate is needed in order to understand the necessity, desire, and drivers which form and make up a productive but often contested space between the NGO sector and the state.
The Tried and Trusted research focused on Refugee Action’s delivery of the AVR programme (named ‘Choices’) in the UK. Refugee Action was awarded this grant in 2011 and to this date remains the only NGO that’s responsible for implementing AVR from end to end. AVR still remains a controversial issue and debates exist―within and across the refugee/asylum/migrant sector―regarding whether NGOs should be involved in the returns process at all as well as who is ‘best placed’ to provide this service. Previously, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) managed this programme in the UK and they still remain the main agency for delivering AVR across Europe.
Our interviews indicate that Refugee Action’s initial decision to be the sole agent for AVR in the UK was a time of intense internal dialogue and debate. The justifications presented to us were largely based on three main reasons:
- they understood the complex needs of their client group;
- the clients wanted them to be involved as they were a trusted, independent organisation; and
- they are willing to put the needs of their clients ahead of the government and they are willing to publically challenge the government on behalf of their clients.
It should be noted that Refugee Action operate with considerable autonomy in delivering the AVR programme since they have a grant agreement rather than a contract with the Home Office. Interestingly, this rationale presents a complex relationship and dynamic that Refugee Action has to manage with both the government and their clients. Although receiving a substantial amount of funds to deliver the ‘Choices’ programme within a highly political climate, Refugee Action were clear that their client-centred and ethical delivery meant they were able to provide an independent source of advice for asylum seekers and irregular migrants whilst still advocating against the government―often using the delivery of Choices as a source of evidence. Indeed, when we interviewed representatives from the Home Office they also reiterated this view and clearly saw Refugee Action as an intermediary agency and “not a government lapdog.” However, although there was clear consensus regarding Refugee Action’s role and independence, the politicisation of ‘returns,’ the unequal power dynamics, and the Home Offices’ motivations behind the AVR programme needs to be explicitly acknowledged. During our interviews with the Home Office personnel they stated how AVR was a key initiative because “it delivers high volumes of compliant returns” and is “cost effective.” In reality, these contrasting drivers between government and NGOs in the sector creates a fraught relationship and as we argue, a contested space.
This contention is aptly illustrated in the recent changes that the Home Office have introduced regarding the availability of AVR in immigration removal centres. Previously, detainees were the main group of individuals who ‘chose’ to return via the AVR programme. In April 2014, however, the Home Office, without any consultation or dialogue with Refugee Action, announced that they were removing this option from detainees. In a policy statement they said:
“AVR has been used increasingly by detainees. This has reduced the incentive to apply for AVR in the community and has undermined one of the main reasons for operating the programme… Detainees incur significant costs for the Home Office to locate, arrest and detain: It is therefore not appropriate that they should receive the same level of assistance as an individual who has complied with the Home Office earlier in the process.”
This statement is a clear departure from previous Home Office positions and demonstrates some of the difficulties NGOs face in delivering government grants. During our interviews, Refugee Action often stated that whilst AVR in detention was problematic, it was for some “the most important work we do.” In light of the Home Office changes, Refugee Action are being forced to refocus the programme and exclude detainees despite their preference to include this group. The ability of the government to control the funds, the tendering process, policy drivers, and the impose changes to delivery suggests how the working relationship between these sectors is an intricate balancing act with complex push and pull factors.
We conclude that further discussions within academic and NGO sectors need to be had to both analyse the significance of the withdrawal of AVR from detainees as well as further exploring the contested space and unequal power dynamics between NGO agencies and the government.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
McGhee D and Bennett C (2014) Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR): Government Funding and the Refugee Sector. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/assisted-voluntary-return/ (Accessed [date]).