On Monday, Belgium repatriated by charter plane 106 Iraqi migrants – but they were not being sent back after being rounded up by law enforcement. They had volunteered to be flown back to Baghdad, as part of a government-led initiative.
Jointly managed by the International Organization for Migration and FEDASIL, the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum-seekers in Belgium, the program has been described as the first of its kind in Europe. Usually, migrants who elect to return home are flown back to their country of origin on commercial flights, but this is the first time a government charters a plane.
International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokeswoman Géraldine D'Hoop said that, once they arrived in Baghdad, migrants would benefit from "reintegration assistance" for a full year. The assistance, she noted, would include "micro-business support, temporary accommodation, work placement and groceries."
"If people want to go home, I'm not going to stop them"
IOM has also been working with a network of 60 partners in Belgium — including NGOs, local authorities, shelters and charities — who alert authorities when a migrant expresses the desire to leave the country.
Candidates for voluntary return must then submit an application to ensure they are returning to a stable situation. The IOM books the return travel, which is paid for by the Belgian government.
Belgian State Secretary for Asylum Policy and Migration Theo Francken was at the airport Monday to wave off a new batch of returnees. "If people want to go home, I'm not going to stop them," he told local television channel RTL-TVI.
Francken, who is affiliated with the nationalist New Flemish Alliance party, purchased Facebook ads in September as part of a campaign in to deter young Iraqi men from trying to obtain asylum in Belgium. His office also distributed letters in English and Arabic to migrant shelters around Belgium, inviting Iraqis to return home "voluntarily."
Of the 3,870 migrants who voluntarily returned home from Belgium in 2015, 1,014 are Iraqis, according to the IOM. In 2014, only 58 people volunteered to go back to Iraq from Belgium. In August 2015, just under half of all asylum claims filed in Belgium were filed by Iraqi nationals. By December 2015, asylum claims filed by Iraqi nationals dropped dramatically, making up only 8 percent of total claims.
In September, the Belgian Office of the Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless Persons announced it would no longer automatically grant subsidiary protection — a financial assistance program for refugees — to migrants from Iraq, which could explain the recent wave of voluntary repatriations and the drop in the number of asylum claims.
"The people who return voluntarily are economic migrants," D'Hoop said. Economic migrants choose to move in order to improve their prospects, but are not fleeing persecution — a necessary distinction to qualify for refugee status.
"They didn't strictly speaking flee the war," said D'Hoop, adding that candidates for voluntary repatriation generally return to a stable living situation. The IOM, she noted, is currently reviewing these living conditions.
D'Hoop said there were three reasons migrants who had sometimes risked everything to reach Belgium might elect to go home.
The first reason is the lack of economic and socio-economic prospects in Belgium, including "securing accommodation or a job — all in all, pretty basic things."
Secondly, being forced to live in poor conditions, in tents or barracks, has also left many migrants disillusioned with their new life.
A third factor is the difficulties encountered during the process of trying to reunite scattered families. "Most migrants are single men, or [men] with children. Getting their wives or the rest of their family to join them can sometimes take too long or, in some cases, not happen at all."
Before boarding the plane, one Iraqi national told Flemish television channel VTM that he would rather "die in Iraq than stay in Belgium." Another migrant told reporters he had spent $6,000 just to reach Belgium.
According to Francken, this chartered flight is costing the Belgian taxpayer 100,000 euros ($109,000). But the minister says the program is worth it, since, according to him, asylum seekers cost the state 50 euros ($55) per day.
According to the government, no other chartered flights have been planned for now, but the state will continue to pay for the airfares of migrants returning home on commercial flights.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenewsFR