25 years of return assistance

Asylum seekers who cannot or do not wish to remain in Switzerland are entitled to return assistance and counselling. These services were institutionalised in 1997, making Switzerland a pioneer in Europe at the time. In 2022, SEM celebrated 25 years of return assistance; an opportunity to take stock.

MB RKH The Gambia Rinderzucht

Return assistance was introduced in 1993 by the then Federal Office for Refugees (FOR). After a long preparatory phase, the first major field test was carried out in 1997/1998: 10,000 people received financial support on their return to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Between July 1999 and May 2001, more than 40,000 people from Kosovo returned home, benefiting from the largest country programme to date. Numerous other regions have been added since then, and there are now return assistance programmes in over 20 countries. SEM’s main partners are the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Key changes

Geographically, the focus has shifted over the years, from the Balkans to North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. At the same time, support in the form of cash payments has become increasingly rare. Today, return assistance usually means local project support, which takes the individual’s needs into account.

Departures with return assistance 2018-2022

No of departures

Algeria 553
Iraq 237
Turkey 192
Nigeria 141
Sri Lanka 121
Kosovo 100
Syria 97
Gambia 90
Ethiopia 86
Iran 86

The target groups have also changed. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly war refugees who returned to their home country after a long stay in Switzerland, return assistance is now also available for migrants who have little chance of obtaining asylum in Switzerland. Return counselling is now available to them already in the federal asylum centres.

New orientation in 2019

Since 2019, voluntary return has been promoted even more under the new Asylum Act. An early return or a shorter stay in a federal asylum centre is rewarded with higher benefits. One of the reasons for this is that a shorter stay is associated with cost savings, all things considered. Asylum seekers are given timely advice on the asylum procedure and on their chances of receiving a positive asylum decision. If these chances are slim, they have the opportunity of discussing their departure options with a counsellor.

MB RHK Bissau Taxi buinsiness

The initial results are positive: the proportion of people who left in the first phase (with the highest benefits) increased from 52% in 2019 to 78% in 2022. The average length of stay in a federal asylum centre has also fallen, from 54 days in 2019 to 44 in 2022. Whether this trend will continue in the long term remains to be seen

100,000 departures on the horizon

In the past 25 years, around 98,000 people have left the country with an average of CHF 1,700 in return assistance. In 2022, 3,884 left Switzerland with return assistance. Surprisingly, Ukraine was in first place with 2,594 departures, despite the ongoing war. All the other countries followed with a significant margin (Algeria 306, Turkey 78, Iraq 41, Nigeria 40).

Cartoon Rueckkehrhilfe
A: "I have the ideal project! Communal! Sustainable! Biodiverse! Climate-friendly! Social!" B: "Um... but I'M the one returning!"