Migrants near the Channel tunnel in Calais, Nov. 25, 2020 | Photo: Reuters
Migrants near the Channel tunnel in Calais, Nov. 25, 2020 | Photo: Reuters

The French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII) organizes street outreach activities for homeless migrants as well as in migrant reception centers. The aim is to encourage those who have been refused asylum or those without papers to return to their countries of origin.

Since early 2020, more than 4,000 foreigners – including Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis – have left France to return to their countries of origin. Desperate and exhausted after often years of wandering with the constant fear of police harassment, many of those stuck in France’s northern Calais region decided to give up their dream of reaching the country of their choice, the UK.

They gave up "voluntarily" after being encouraged to do so by the services of the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII). They received a sum of money and a seat on a flight back home after committing to leaving French territory.

Who can benefit? What does it involve? How do these voluntary return procedures work? Here are some answers.

What are the conditions of this assistance?

The French government offers a return flight and a sum of up to €1,850 to any foreigner, adult or minor, who wants to leave France voluntarily after having spent more than three months in the country. This applies to irregular immigrants, those whose asylum applications have been rejected, and migrants whose status depend on another EU country under the terms of the Dublin Regulation.

"We give priority to people whose entry into France is subject to visas," said Didier Leschi, OFII director. Those who do not need visas to come to France, such as Albanians and Romanians for example, are not among the priority nationalities.

Note: A person who decides to return voluntarily is left to judge the safety level of their countries of origin.

How is this assistance offered to the migrants concerned?

OFII organizes outreach activities for migrants living on the streets, for example in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Their agents also conduct outreach activities across France. They can, for example, go to reception centers where migrants with rejected asylum applications are housed.

When a person’s asylum application is rejected, they receive the OQTF [Obligation de quitter le territoire français or Obligation to Leave French Territory] paper as well as documentation on the possibility of benefiting from assisted voluntary returns, explained Leschi.

What happens once a person has agreed to return to their country of origin?

There are centers for people awaiting voluntary returns. If the rejected asylum applicant resides in a migrant center, he/she can also stay in this accommodation for the time it takes to return home.

At this point, French authorities have to obtain a consular pass, book a plane ticket and organize the departure. The wait can last several months, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of certain borders. The pandemic has actually cut voluntary returns by half this year (they were 8,700 in 2019). According to Leschi, the stranded migrants include about 100 Iraqi Kurds currently waiting for a return flight home.

When and how is the sum of money for return assistance paid to migrants?

This sum is given at the moment of crossing the border (at the airport). It is given either in cash or via a withdrawal card that can be used in the destination country. This second option depends on the banking system in the country of origin.

Once back home, are there any other forms of assistance set up for these people?

A "reintegration assistance" – which can range from €3,500 to €10,000 depending on the country – is available for those who have a concrete professional project in their country of origin. These projects, which can be finalized upon their return home, are evaluated by a steering committee made up of the embassies concerned, or local authorities, and the OFII.

If a project is accepted, this sum of reintegration money is not, this time, paid directly to the person concerned. It is used by the OFII to purchase goods that will be necessary for the professional activity chosen by the person.

"We do this to ensure that the money will be used for a specific professional project," explained Leschi. "In Tunisia, for example, a person may want to start a fishing business, in which case we can buy a boat. It can also mean purchasing a vehicle for someone who wants to become a cab driver, or raw materials to work in agriculture in Mali."

What happens if a person who has received assistance returns to France?

Every person who benefits from this assisted voluntary return programme must give his/her fingerprints before leaving. This means that they are registered and cannot benefit from the programme a second time.

"If a person returns to France after having received the assistance and starts an asylum procedure, we generally try to block the payment of the ADA (assistance to asylum seekers) and to report the case to Ofpra (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons)," said Leschi.


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