Since 1979, the IOM has supported some 1.3 million migrants across the world through its Assisted Voluntary Return Programme (AVR). The program focuses on migrants who wish to return to their country of origin but without the means to do so. Persons from the migrant population that can access this program include: rejected asylum seekers applicants, victims of human trafficking, stranded migrants, and other vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, among others.
In order for AVR to be possible, seven principles must be met: voluntariness; a migrant-focused response; ensuring safe return; ensuring sustainable reintegration; confidentiality of data; dialogue and partnership with relevant actors; and an evidence-based program. In Central America, the AVR Program is currently being implemented from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize to the rest of the Americas and, in some cases, to countries outside the region.
At the onset of the pandemic, AVR was temporarily suspended due to mobility restrictions. However, in collaboration with states and partners, it was re-launched as a humanitarian response mechanism to assist migrants stranded by the pandemic. While the principles of AVR remain unchanged during the COVID-19 outbreak, new measures have needed to be implemented in the processes to make returns possible.
Changes in Processes
1. One of the most obvious changes with the AVR process during the pandemic is that staff can no longer be in the field. Previously, information stations were established near borders where migrants decided whether or not to continue the hard journey to the north of the continent to process their requests. Now, requests to return are processed by different partners and counterparts across civil society, shelters and governments (such as consulates). In other cases, migrants write directly to IOM's social networks requesting support in returning to their countries of origin.
2. Similarly, the IOM now uses a pre-registration form that functions as an expression of interest to return on the part of the migrant, instead of the first face-to-face contact that was usual before the pandemic. This document records the situation of the country in which you are, your current situation there including whether there are any vulnerabilities, and why you wish to apply for AVR. This form does not guarantee that the AVR will take place, since during the COVID-19 outbreak some countries have kept their territories completely closed during the pandemic, even for their nationals.
3. The next step is to provide advice or counselling to migrants who are interested in returning so that they can make an informed decision and address their concerns. Counselling, which used to be done in person, is now done virtually as a result of the pandemic.
4. Along with counselling, the information provided in the pre-registration forms is an analysed – the requested country of return and the restrictions of movement in that state are reviewed, so that options can be evaluated with the IOM office or the respective embassy, in case there is no local IOM office. Once migration and health authorities give the green light for movement between countries, it is decided whether this will be done by land or air, taking into account border closures due to the virus. Authorities then proceed to contact the migrants, to inform them of the news and coordinate next steps.
5. An interview is then conducted with the migrant to determine that there is no imminent risk to their safety if they return to their country of origin, as well as their situation in the country in which they are currently located. If it is determined that there is a danger or threat upon return, the case is referred to the protection authorities and/or UNHCR. If the person decides that they prefer to regularise their situation in the country where they already are (such as in cases of missing documents), they are referred to the relevant migration authority. These interviews, previously conducted face-to-face, are now carried out virtually during the pandemic.
If, however, the person is eligible for return, two documents are provided for their information and signature: a form reaffirming the voluntary nature of the return (which already existed before the pandemic); and a form on the health protocols to be carried out during the return, which is directly related to the COVID-19 outbreak and includes for example, information on the health protocols people will be subject to upon return, including quarantine. (It should be kept in mind that measures vary from country to country).
6. Once the migrant signs both documents, the return plan is initiated. This plan has four parts: documentation; means of travel (previously carried out mostly by land, but now often it is done by air, in order to safeguard the health of all persons involved); a medical check-up (which already existed before the pandemic, but now includes screening and detection of possible symptoms associated with COVID-19); and basic assistance with the provision of food, accommodation, health and hygiene while the AVR is being processed.
7. The AVR process is put into action. Previously, migrants were escorted by IOM staff, but due to mobility restrictions during the pandemic, the protocol has been changed. Migrants are provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, as well as hand sanitizer gel, food, and any required medication. Reception is coordinated by the local IOM office, however in cases which staff cannot personally greet the beneficiaries, a reception is coordinated with authorities in the countries of origin. Previously, post-arrival assistance was provided immediately and for special cases. However, during the pandemic, this assistance has been extended for 14 days and includes the provision of food, hygiene and health products to ensure a dignified quarantine.
8. Finally, the IOM monitors cases within one month of arrival, with consent of the migrants. In the past, they consisted of home visits, but today monitoring takes place by telephone, Whatsapp or social networks. The reintegration process is initiated by referring migrants to relevant programs from the national government and partners. Similarly, the AVR program supports existing institutional programs to strengthen the supply of and access to reintegration services for migrants.
Change in profiles
- Pre-pandemic: Migrants generally had less interest in the AVR program, as their expectation was to arrive in the chosen destination country. Central America was part of their migration route, and they generally approached IOM when it was no longer feasible to continue transiting due to money problems or stricter border measures. In some cases, persons who sought refuge in the United States but were transferred to Guatemala through the Asylum Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, also sought support from the AVR: these migrants often preferred to return to their country of origin rather than to another country in the region.In general, it used to be more complex to identify the migrants concerned, but the return process was simpler to carry out.
- During the pandemic: Many of the migrants applying for AVR are those who became stranded, as well as those who were already living in a destination country (regularly or irregularly) but lost their jobs and are seeking to return to be with their families during the COVID-19 outbreak.In general, it is easier to identify people who wish to return, but it is more complex to carry out the return process due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
If you are interested in receiving support from the IOM Assisted Voluntary Return program in Central America, you can do it through our social networks: