Post by Dr Brandy Cochrane. Brandy is a Lecturer at Victoria University;

Source: WikiMedia

Upon my examination of the most recent data on Australian deportation (2016-2017) according to Operation Sovereign Borders, 14,660 people were deported, excluding irregular maritime arrives (in other words, asylum seekers). Examining the data in regard to asylum seekers that are not included in the above statistics, the word ‘deportation’ is not used in official media releases. The recent terminology adopted by Operation Sovereign borders is “voluntary” and “involuntary” removal of “illegal maritime arrivals” and “potential illegal immigrants”

The Australian Government funds the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration Program, run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Migrants living in Australia on a bridging or expired visa, illegal maritime arrivals and non-refugees at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru may voluntarily engage in this program. Involuntary removal is mainly used to describe the deportation of people who hold expired visas and those who are deemed not of good character under the 1958 Migration Act that was further expanded in 2019.

Criminologists investigating deportation practices of affluent countries, such as Leanne Weber suggest that deportation is a clear case of punishment and is a tactic often used as part of the crimmigration paradigm. Crimmigration refers to the link between states’ expanding border control practices and the increasing application of criminal tactics towards migrants. Through these tactics, non-citizens are funnelled through an immigration system that mimics the criminal justice system without the due process rights afforded to accused citizen offenders.  The term was coined by Juliet Stumpf (2006) to describe the relationship between policing and immigration policies within the US context.

In 2019, the Australian government, in cooperation with the IOM, voluntarily removed sixty two asylum seekers who had been in the country since before January 1, 2014 and involuntarily removed thirteen asylum seekers (Operation Sovereign Borders). Voluntary returns (or voluntary repatriation) is the return of a migrant to their country of origin, often with financial assistance of a host country or international organisation.  Multiple countries have policies of voluntary returns, including the UK, Germany, France and Norway. In Frances Webber’s work in the UK, she argues that these deportations are not particularly voluntary. Instead voluntary return, she argues, is offered as an alternative to destitution due to lack of benefits and services or involuntary return by a host country.

Australian crimmigration policies that create suffering and uncertainty are arguably intended to induce the “voluntary” return of asylum seekers. The majority of asylum seekers that have complied with voluntarily return to dangerous countries of origin, have been held in limbo for at least six years. Many of these asylum seekers arrived before 1 January 2014. After this date, all asylum seekers are taken to a third country (such as Papua New Guinea) and resettled in the third country. They are unable to apply for visas in Australia.

As I have discussed elsewhere, this means that asylum seekers who arrived before 2014 are not allowed to work, are given temporary visa status, have constraints on their travel, limited family reunification and are on restricted government benefits that are less than citizen benefits. These purposeful governmental policies create situations of poverty and uncertainty for asylum seekers, leaving them in distress and making things like work, care of children and finding permanent housing difficult. 

Living in precarity has significant impacts on the wellbeing and mental health of asylum seekers that may well contribute to them voluntarily returning to their countries of origin. Asylum seekers take great risks to leave their country of origin due to violence, oppression and other contributing factors, but they are coerced into voluntarily returning to these dangerous situations because of destitution and hopelessness. 

The Australian government does not publish more than the numerical data on voluntary and involuntary returns for the public. The public are unaware of basic information about these deportations, including basic demographic data and information about which countries people are being deported to. This tactic of obfuscation demonstrates how the government dehumanises and hides those people who are deported. As Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering note in their book  on Australian border deaths, it is essential to count and account for the outcomes of individuals who are subject to governmental border practices. Additional research into who is being deported and the use of voluntary and involuntary returns is therefore necessary to garner greater understanding of the individuals and the outcomes of this border practice. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cockhrane, B (2020). Coercive Voluntary Returns. Available at: [date]