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Returning asylum seekers


A fresh start in Nigeria, brought to you by Switzerland


By Veronica DeVore



Thousands of asylum seekers have come to Switzerland from Nigeria in the past decade, often with all their family’s hopes on their shoulders. When they arrive, they’re offered $7000 to turn around, go back home and start a business. But what’s behind that generous-sounding deal?

“Most of  them, when they return [home], they think they’ve failed. Because they’re not the big businessman who returns successfully with a lot of money,” says Katharina Schnöring of the International Organization for Migration, which works with Switzerland to implement asylum seeker return programmes – known as “assisted voluntary return and reintegration”, or AVRR.

The voluntary return option for Nigeria gives anyone who chooses that route a maximum payment of $1000 cash on leaving Switzerland and another $6000 in-kind to start a business or improve their situation. The idea behind the programme is to give returning Nigerians other options besides being forced to go home on a flight under guard – so-called “forced repatriation”.

“It’s about returning with dignity, that at least you come back with something and you are able to build up a better life,” Schnöring says. According to the Federal Office for Migration, 90% of Nigerian citizens who had to return to their home country in 2012 do so independently. And in 2013, a total of 544 Nigerian asylum seekers opted to go home under the voluntary return programme.

The AVRR programme to Nigeria has resulted in returned asylum seekers starting small projects like barber and cosmetics shops, or stores selling spare parts and electronics. Many – but not all – become profitable enterprises. The challenges of daily life in Nigeria, from political instability to high cost of living and having to pay rent several years in advance, make getting a business off the ground especially challenging and mean the funds are usually stretched to the max.

Migration partnership: Switzerland and Nigeria

Formed in 2011, the broad migration partnership between the Swiss and Nigerian governments is made up of many key elements, including:

  • A project enabling Nigerian expatriates in Switzerland to teach young people in Nigeria
  • A pilot project on police cooperation where several Nigerian police visited Switzerland to enhance operational co-operation with selected cantonal authorities in the fight against drug trafficking.
  • Capacity-building of the Nigerian immigration authorities and support for Nigeria in the implementation of a protection policy for internally displaced persons
  • A working group to examine the issue of irregular migration
  • A joint action plan on asylum and return including the assisted voluntary return programme. Nigerian asylum seekers’ cases are also processed under a new “fast track” system.

But both Schnöring and Karl Lorenz, the head of the section for third countries and countries of origin at the migration office, argue the success of the AVRR programme to Nigeria actually has very little to do with money – 26 other EU states and Norway run voluntary return programmes for asylum seekers, offering varying amounts of money, and Switzerland has run similar programmes with other countries like Iraq and Kosovo whose funding schemes also vary.

What sets Switzerland’s work with Nigeria apart is the countries’ broader migration partnership, of which the return programme is a small part. That partnership has high-level officials from both the Nigerian and Swiss governments meeting on a regular basis to tackle a host of issues vital to both countries.


“I think what is unique is the holistic governmental approach Switzerland takes [with Nigeria], that they meet, that they talk, that the [AVRR] programme is embedded into the whole approach of the Swiss migration partnership and isn’t something standing alone,” Schnöring says.

“That approach is something we always give as a best practice when we talk to other European countries.”

The need for such a collaborative approach emerged when Swiss-Nigerian relations were strained after a Nigerian asylum seeker died at Zurich airport shortly before boarding a repatriation flight in 2010. A key step in repairing relations was gaining Nigeria’s acceptance of sending asylum seekers back home.

“The acceptance by the Nigerian government of our return policy has improved,” Lorenz tells swissinfo.ch. “They understand that we consistently promote voluntary return, which makes it easier for them to accept forced returns because they understand that there is a serious and credible option. There’s a choice. People can make that choice.”

Presenting options

That choice is presented to asylum seekers shortly after their arrival at Swiss reception centres, in a completely separate counseling session from the handling of their asylum case. But it’s rarely what they want to hear.

O.*, an asylum seeker who fled Nigeria because of persecution for being gay, said he and the others who arrived with him were told their chance of getting asylum was “very, very poor” and that Switzerland had a voluntary assistance programme they could take advantage of. But he didn’t see that as a positive thing at all.

“They fail you even before the interview,” he told swissinfo.ch. O. didn’t take advantage of the programme because, he says, “I have money, I didn’t come here for money. I ran for my life.”

O. fled after finding out he’d been denied asylum, fearing further persecution in Nigeria. He’s now in prison awaiting deportation – see the article at right for more on his story.

Support on the ground

Indeed, Schnöring says the AVRR programme rarely sounds attractive to asylum seekers who put everything on the line to get to Europe.

“Even if $7000 seems to be a lot, they invest a lot more [in the journey], plus many of them risk their lives,” she says, adding that there is an added burden for Nigerians because their families – “more than in other countries” – expect them to pay back the debts they incurred getting to Europe.

Life in Nigeria

The everyday realities in Africa’s largest country range from terrorist threats to sectarian violence, persecution and extreme poverty in its many villages and in the sprawling cities of Abuja and Lagos. Boko Haram, a terrorist group allied with al-Qaeda, recently grabbed headlines around the world when some of its members kidnapped hundreds of school girls to keep as wives and sell into slavery. And on May 20, terrorists killed more than 100 people with twin bombs in the central Nigerian city of Jos.

To get asylum in Switzerland, Nigerians, like all asylum seekers, must be able to prove they are fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. In 2013, 413 asylum cases of Nigerian nationals were being processed in Switzerland, down from 892 in 2012. Of the 2013 cases, 96 were granted provisional asylum.

Although he knows it’s difficult for asylum seekers to shift their mentality from dreams of living in Switzerland to realities of returning home, Lorenz says having the right support on the ground is the key to having the programme work for those who choose it. He says a similar attempted return scheme in the Horn of Africa region that gave each returning migrant almost three times as much funding failed because there was no possibility of forced repatriation or support from the African governments, making staying in Switzerland the obvious choice.

“Only about three to six people took advantage of that programme,” Lorenz says. “So the money as such is not the most important part. In an environment where forced returns were not possible, where there was no support on the ground and no government contacts, you can’t buy returns. You have to have other conditions in place to make them work.”

And those conditions have grown out of the migration partnership, something Lorenz’s colleague Christopher Middleton calls “remarkable”, especially given that it’s only been in place since 2011. Once the Nigerian government understood and accepted the Swiss position on voluntary return and reintegration, it was easier to tackle other aspects of the countries’ relationship like drug trafficking problems, which had a group of Nigerian police officers working in Switzerland on an exchange.

“I think other countries are extremely interested in seeing what Switzerland has done with Nigeria in terms of identifying instruments to cooperate and have open discussions,” Middleton says. “Having those discussions at a high level enables the decision makers to actually make the changes that we need.”

And Lorenz sees growing awareness in the international community that Switzerland’s partnerships with so-called asylum seeker “countries of origin” – like Nigeria – are effective.

“Countries of origin do have interests and are sometimes also in a very difficult situation when it comes to migration, be it through regional conflicts or demographic development. So it’s not a one-sided thing. It can only work through trust and co-operation.”


*Name withheld

By Veronica DeVore, swissinfo.ch