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A New Approach To Refugees: Pay Them To Go Home

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 15, 2018 10:11 pm

Our series, "Take A Number," is exploring problems around the world — and the people who are trying to solve them — through the lens of a single number.

158,000. That's roughly how many refugees are stuck in limbo in Europe right now.

Many of them got to Europe in late 2015, when the refugee crisis reached its peak, and have been waiting since then to see if they'll be formally accepted into the European Union. To cut down on the wait time and economic impact of this massive influx, some countries and nonprofits in Europe have embraced a new idea — pay refugees to go back to the countries they left in the first place.

Mahmoud Abdelwahab is one of the people who has been waiting. He's 25, and originally from Mosul, Iraq. In early 2016, he quit his job as a cook and came to Europe, ending up in Vienna.

"He saw people dying on the trip, like capsizing or falling from the boat into the sea," Philipp Epaid says. Epaid is Abdelwahab's counselor at Caritas, the nonprofit that provides refugee services to people in Austria who are returning home.

Abdelwahab filled out his application to stay in Austria almost two years ago. Since then, nothing.

All he could do — legally — was wait in a refugee camp. This is a big problem a lot of people waiting for asylum have: They aren't allowed to get a job, which means Mahmoud couldn't send money back to his family.

"He wants to work. He wants to learn the language, and if you have no chance to do this, you're stuck and you get tired," Epaid says.

Abdelwahab says he spent two years all alone, feeling like a failure. And that the odds of getting asylum are stacked against him.

He's not wrong — the Austrian courts have been overwhelmed by applications. When the migrant crisis reached its peak back in 2015, the number of people wanting to stay in Austria tripled.

Instead of waiting longer, Mahmoud late last year made a tough decision. He decided to leave Austria and go back to Iraq.

"He saw other Iraqi people receiving the negative decision that they have to go back," Epaid says. "And that's why he decided for himself to back, before he got a negative."

That decision — to voluntarily leave the country — is exactly what the Austrian government wants refugees to do. Last spring, Austria announced that it would give 1,000 euros to the first 1,000 refugees who signed up to leave on their own.

The program was successful, and the government extended the offer to more refugees. It's an incentive that's gaining traction across Europe.

"Either they choose the voluntary option or we have to discuss the forced option," says Karl-Heinz Groendbock, the spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry. That's the department that's funding the voluntary program. "Whenever it comes to forced return, we're talking about arresting people. It means we also have detention centers for people waiting for forced return."

Groendbock says it's a lot cheaper to give someone a one-way flight and 1,000 euros than using the country's resources to deport them. And, he adds, when there are more applications, there will be more rejections. So, the government has wanted to encourage more refugees to return home — a decision thousands of refugees made in 2017.

But is paying them really in the best interest of refugees? Philipp Epaid, Abdelwahab's counselor, is not sure. He says it's really important that a refugee makes a life-changing decision like this one on his own.

But this program is exactly why Mahmoud Abdelwahab chose to return home to Iraq — voluntarily.

On a warm Thursday in October, he took a bus to the Vienna airport, ready to board a flight to Baghdad.

He's taking the buyout, he says, to go home and use the money to buy a car and become a cab driver.

"Two years ... [I] was here for nothing," Mahmoud says as Epaid translates. "It didn't make any sense to come here."

NPR has reached out to Abdelwahab, but hasn't heard from him since he flew home to Iraq.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The movement of people across borders because of war, natural disasters or just the desire for opportunity has become one of the pressing issues of our time. Now here's another take on this issue, this time, from Europe. And we will start with a number - 158,000. That's roughly how many refugees remain in limbo after arriving in Europe, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa.

Many have been stuck there since the Great Migration of 2015 - far from their homes but unable to get permission to formally enter the European Union and start a new life. So one idea that's gaining some traction is to pay them to go back to the countries they left in the first place. NPR's Lucy Perkins reports from Vienna, Austria, as part of NPR's Take A Number series that explores issues around the world and efforts to address them through the lens of a single number.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LUCY PERKINS, BYLINE: In the waiting area at the main refugee clinic in Vienna, no one looks happy. That's because a lot of the people sitting there have run out of options. It's where I meet a young guy from Iraq.

MAHMOUD ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

PERKINS: Mahmoud Abdelwahab is 25 and came here nearly two years ago from Mosul. He's tall, has dark curly hair and big brown exhausted eyes. He doesn't say much. But while he waited, he told me how he got here. In early 2016, Mahmoud decided to leave Iraq because he feared for his safety. He quit his job as a cook. And using money that his family scrounged together, he left.

I spoke to him through his counselor Philipp Epaid at the nonprofit Caritas, which is in charge of refugee services in Austria. Mahmoud says his journey was tough. He was on one of the boats that you heard about in the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Startling new numbers in the crisis as thousands of desperate people seek refuge.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: 2016 will be the deadliest year ever for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Paying thousands of dollars for a trip that could cost them their lives. Ten-thousand...

ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

PHILIPP EPAID: He saw people dying on the trip...

ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

EPAID: ...Like capsizing or falling from the boat into the sea.

PERKINS: He filled out his asylum application almost two years ago and since then, nothing. All he could do legally was wait in refugee camp. That's a big problem a lot of people waiting for asylum have to deal with. They aren't allowed to get a job, which means Mahmoud couldn't send money back to his family.

ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

EPAID: And he wants to work. He wants to learn the language. And if you have no chance to do this, you're stuck. And you get tired and frustrating.

PERKINS: Mahmoud spent two years all alone, feeling like a failure that the odds of him getting asylum were stacked against him. And he's not wrong. The Austrian courts have been overwhelmed by the number of applications. When the migrant crisis reached its peak back in 2015, the number of people wanting to stay in Austria tripled.

ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

EPAID: He saw other Iraqi people receiving the negative decision that they have to go back. And that's why he decided for himself to go back before he get a negative.

PERKINS: Instead of waiting longer, Mahmoud made a tough decision. He decided to leave Austria and go back to Iraq. That decision to voluntarily leave the country is exactly the choice the Austrian government wants refugees like Mahmoud to make.

Last spring, Austria announced it would pay refugees a thousand euros if they signed up to leave on their own. It's an incentive that's gaining traction across Europe.

KARL-HEINZ GROENDBOCK: And either they choose the voluntary option or we have to discuss the forced option.

PERKINS: This is Karl-Heinz Groendbock. He's the spokesperson for the Austrian Interior Ministry, the department that's funding the voluntary program.

GROENDBOCK: Whenever it comes to forced return, we're talking about arresting people. It means that we also have detention centres for those people who are waiting for forced return.

PERKINS: Groendbock says it's a lot cheaper to give someone a one-way flight and a thousand euros than using resources to deport them. And he says, when there are more applications, there will be more rejections. So the government has wanted to encourage more refugees to return home, and thousands have taken the buyout.

But Philipp Epaid, Mahmoud's counselor, is not sure that paying refugees to leave is in their best interest. He says it's really important that a refugee makes a life-changing decision like this one on his own.

So we're at the airport?

EPAID: Yeah, we are here.

PERKINS: But this program is exactly why Mahmoud Abdelwahab is headed to the airport today. He decided to take the money, go back home to Iraq and use it to buy a car and become a cab driver.

We get off the bus, and Mahmoud grabs all his belongings. He only has a small carry-on suitcase and a backpack.

EPAID: (Speaking Arabic).

ABDELWAHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

EPAID: He said that it didn't make any sense to come here. OK, like, two years he was here for nothing.

PERKINS: We walk into the airport where we meet another official who gives him more paperwork to fill out. He heads to the check-in counter where he drops off his bags, and we shake hands.

EPAID: OK.

PERKINS: Bye. Good luck.

EPAID: Yeah.

PERKINS: So now he's off, right?

EPAID: He's off, yeah.

PERKINS: After a long journey, it's a quick and quiet goodbye to Europe. Mahmoud heads through security to board his one-way flight home to Iraq. Lucy Perkins, NPR News, Vienna.

MARTIN: NPR has tried but hasn't heard from Mahmoud since he returned to Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.