Has your application for asylum been unsuccessful and are you being forced to return to your home country? Or perhaps you have a residence permit in Europe, and yet you are still considering going back home. If this is the case, you may be able to receive counseling to help you prepare for your return.
No matter what the circumstances were that made you leave your country, it is very likely that returning will be difficult. But in most countries in Europe, help is available in the form of counseling.
In some cases, this support is only offered to those returning voluntarily, but in countries such as Denmark, it is available for rejected asylum seekers facing forced return. Sometimes it is referred to as "repatriation counseling" for voluntary returnees and "return counseling" for rejected asylum seekers.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has been providing return counseling for nearly four decades. It wants all countries in Europe to do as Denmark has done and offer the service to asylum seekers through all stages of the asylum procedure, including after a final rejection of the application.
What concerns do people have about returning?
A lot of migrants fear the "stigma of failure," a resentment from the community if they decide to return, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Germany. It may be important for them not to be going back empty-handed, especially since they may have got into debt when trying to reach Europe in the first place.
If they have been away for a long time, people also worry about not fitting in culturally when they return, the IOM says. Children can be particularly affected if they don't speak the language of the country of their parents and they face going to school to be taught in a language they don't understand.
In addition, people who have left may have lost their home, their job, or even their families or network.
Counseling helps to make sure the return process is "dignified and inclusive," according to the DRC. Anyone who is returning to their home country, especially rejected asylum seekers, needs to know what choices and possibilities they may have, so that they can make the best decision about their future.The DRC is part of a network of counseling and reintegration support organizations. The network, known as ERSO, also has members in the UK, Spain, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, where it was able to offer help to Gonotey L. from Guinea. Gonotey lived in the Netherlands for five years, and there were things about it that he enjoyed, like being part of the football club and learning carpentry. But it also wasn't an easy time. "I could not carry out my plans, I suffered from a lot of stress and wasted my time."
The decision to leave the Netherlands and return to Guinea wasn't easy either, however. Gonotey had to wait nine months for travel documents. When he initially left Guinea, he had had problems with his family, and he felt very uncertain about going back.
Types of counseling
For people like Gonotey who are facing difficult decisions and uncertainty about returning, there are two main types of counseling: legal counseling and return counseling. Where it is available, most people benefit from a combination of both, according to Eva Singer, the Director of the Asylum Department at the DRC.
Legal counseling helps rejected asylum seekers understand the final decision and find out about possibilities such as an appeal, family reunification or a humanitarian residence permit.
Return counseling helps to clarify the actual return procedure, as well as giving asylum seekers the chance to share worries with the counselor, and to consider questions like: What might happen if you stayed, or what would happen if you cooperated with authorities and returned home?
What happens during return counseling?
The DRC gives the example of Malik*, a young Iraqi whose application for asylum was rejected in Denmark. He went to the return counseling office in the asylum center where he was staying. In the first three or four sessions of counseling, Malik mainly talked about his life and situation and his mental and physical state. He didn't trust the Danish authorities and he was not interested in discussing returning to Iraq.
At first, the counselor listened to Malik, and then gradually started to ask questions and talk about the consequences of different options. Malik then started talking about his own fears of going back. He had been away for a long time, he had no family left in Iraq and did not know how he would make a living. Eventually, he was able to discuss reintegration programs and a possible return to his home country.
How do you access counseling?
In Denmark and some other countries, return counseling is available in asylum centers like where Malik was staying. Some offer it every day through a walk-in clinic arrangement, others offer sessions by appointment. In Copenhagen, you can also receive counseling at the DRC itself. "It's obviously very important that it's easily available," Singer says.
In Germany, counseling is available to asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, recognized refugees and victims of forced prostitution or human trafficking. There are more than 1,000 counseling centers in the country. The website returningfromgermany.de has a search option so that migrants considering returning can find the closest return counseling center to them.
If you are in Germany there is also the option of ZIRF counseling. Here you can find information about the situation in your country of origin researched by IOM staff on-site. Migrants considering returning will also soon have access to virtual counseling via Skype or messaging Apps with IOM staff in their country of origin.
The European Union funds a program called ERRIN that supports organizations providing pre-departure counseling and post-arrival reintegration. 18 countries in Europe are members of the ERRIN network, including Norway, Switzerland and all the main European migrant and refugee hosting countries. Ireland and Cyprus are not members.
If you are in Ireland and you want to talk to someone about returning to your country of origin, you can call a service run by the International Organization for Migration for free: 1800 406 406 or go to the website iomireland.ie/return/
In Cyprus, contact the IOM office in Nicosia on the free number 80 0027 77 or go to https://cyprus.iom.int
Can you trust the counselor?
Fear of detention or being forced to return, difficult living conditions in asylum centers, insecurity, unemployment, long waiting times during asylum procedures -- all these can lead to apathy and frustration, making it even harder to make decisions. Return counselors are aware of such pressures, as well as the need to earn trust. "It's not something that just comes automatically," Singer says. "They (asylum seekers) need to see that it actually works in practice, ...that the information provided is accurate, and that you will follow up with them as well."
In Germany, the IOM says, counseling is always anonymous, non-binding (it does not oblige you to leave) and unbiased. Counselors should not judge your thoughts or strategies, and they will allow you to make your own choices about your future. Well-trained and qualified counselors will naturally also have extensive and up-to-date knowledge of asylum procedures. Receiving or expressing an interest in return counseling should not affect your asylum application.