This week, Israel found a new way to return illegal African migrants to their countries of origin — pay them. Lawmakers approved a $124 million plan, which would go towards $3,500 payments to migrants (tripling an existing incentive program), as well as the construction of a migrant detention center and beefed-up law enforcement teams.
Most of the country’s 50,000 foreign migrants hail from conflict-ridden Sudan and Eritrea and, according to international conventions, cannot be deported as they face probable harm in their homelands. Unless, that is, they return voluntarily. This spring, Israeli authorities repatriated hundreds of “voluntary” Sudanese migrants, one year after being lambasted for its strong-arm deportations of African workers. (Human rights advocates claimed that the refugees were offered a devil’s bargain: prison or deportation.)
The Knesset’s latest measure rings as another attempt to create a veneer of legitimacy around coerced migrant expulsions. However, Israel is far from the first nation to cope with a troublesome migrant problem by paying it to go away. Several European countries turned to so-called “pay-to-go” schemes in the mid 1970s, and once again when recession hit in 2008, as did Japan. But barring Germany’s success in repatriating Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, most programs didn’t work — or at least not on the desired scale. As the below will demonstrate.
In late 2008, cash-strapped Spain introduced its Voluntary Return Plan, which offered jobless (legal) immigrants advance payment of their unemployment benefits if they returned to their countries of origin, and stayed there for at least three years. But after two years, only 17,000 immigrants had signed on — far short of the government’s initial prediction of 130,000. Of those that did leave Spain, most were Latin American immigrants — rather than the North African population targeted by the program — who struggled economically once back in their home countries. Today, the issue is mooted: for the first time in two decades, more people are emigrating from Spain than immigrating to it.
The United Kingdom has experimented with a number of variations on the pay-to-go scheme. In the aftermath of the global recession in 2008, the U.K. paid unwanted immigrants (including failed asylum seekers and visa overstayers) to return home, offering airfare, relocation grants and reintegration assistance. Between 2008 and 2011, some 10,000 immigrants took advantage of the program — 1% of an estimated one million eligible. (In 2009, British officials deployed a variation of the scheme, and paid would-be asylum seekers waiting in France not to enter their country.)
In 2013, facing a 42% increase in the number of unemployed migrants, the U.K. rebooted its pay-to-go plan and launched a flashy “go home or face arrest” campaign, which included posters that read: “This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets.” The backlash was immediate and scathing; worse, the negative press was backed up by an official government evaluation that found that only 11 refugees left the U.K. as a direct result of the campaign.
Japan has long been averse to opening its doors to immigrants, which represent less than 2% of the population. However, it is home to a few hundred thousand Latin American Nikkei (or foreigners of Japanese descent), mostly from Brazil, who were recruited in the 1990s to fill low-skilled “3K” positions – a.k.a. “kitsui” (difficult), “kitanai” (dirty), and “kiken” (dangerous).
In 2009, racked by recession, Japan invited those same immigrants to leave — in return for airfare and $2,000 for each dependent — and never come back. (Officials later amended the requirements, allowing for the re-entry of Nikkei after three years.) Amid criticisms that the program was inhumane and shortsighted, only 20,000 people left, out of an immigrant population estimated at 320,000.
Today, Japan’s stance on immigration is softening as its shrinking population increases the need for foreign labor. On October 15, the government lifted restrictions on the return of Nikkei workers.
Denmark is well known for its rigid immigration policy, which imposes high tax rates on foreign workers and boasts stringent requirements on visas and marriages with Danish nationals. In 2009, Danish authorities adopted a pay-to-go scheme to pressure so-called “anti-social” immigrants, i.e., those who “can’t or won’t integrate,” to leave. The compensation was generous in comparison to that offered by Japan (see above) or Spain (on average $12,000): $20,000, plus an additional $2,000 if the foreigner relinquished all residency rights in Denmark after returning home. The program, in conjunction with tough immigration laws, looks to have worked: over the past decade, the number of asylum seekers and immigrant families seeking entry has dropped by two-thirds. The number of refugees has dropped dramatically as well.
But like Japan, changing demographics in Denmark — an aging population — may force a shift. For now, the pay-to-go program remains in place, but the current government is eyeing immigration reforms, which would boost employment for jobless immigrants and relax regulations on family reunification.
France has long struggled to contain tensions over its expanding immigrant population, particularly the Roma communities that have cropped up in large French cities like Lyon and Paris. In 2009, President Sarkozy introduced a program that gave immigrants (largely Roma) cash payments — 300 euros per adult, 150 euros per child — to leave France.
The project was tarnished by allegations of human rights violations — the E.U. threatened heavy fines for discrimination against an ethnic group, and violation of free movement rules — and inefficiency. Most of the expelled Roma pocketed the cash and promptly returned to France.
Despite the backlash, the program still exists, albeit in a more modest incarnation. As of March 2013, the return aid payments were reduced to 50 euros per adult, and 30 euros per child.