Yerevan – Armen is sitting in his office, busily responding to calls, emails and WhatsApp messages from Armenians in Germany who are contemplating returning to their country of origin. As a virtual counsellor, he is one of the many IOM staff members working worldwide to offer migrants accurate information about life in their countries of origin, before they make any decision to return.
When Armenians in Germany call Armen, they are speaking directly with someone on the ground, and receive reliable information in their native language. Armen answers their questions on everything from employment and healthcare, to housing and education. He outlines the return assistance and reintegration opportunities offered by the German government and IOM. A conversation with a virtual counsellor is always unbiased, and anonymous and free of charge. People can call Armen from Germany without revealing their name or having made up their minds to return. They get the information they need to make an informed decision.
Virtual Counselling goes beyond conveying neutral and up-to-date information about the situation in the country of origin. It is also a process that can identify the vulnerabilities and needs of the migrants, as these also have an impact on the sustainability of the reintegration. They also receive first-line emotional support, helping potential returnees to work through their emotions and to make choices for their future.
If they decide to return, a virtual counsellor like Armen can help them to prepare for their return and reintegration. “I explain in detail all the steps, how the return counsellors in Germany will help them with the plane tickets and assist with the documents,” explains Armen.
Upon arrival, Armen shares his phone number so that returnees can reach him on Viber or WhatsApp. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “They know me and know that I will be helping them, which reassures them.”
The people contacting Armen all have unique stories. Many consider returning because they feel the situation in Armenia has improved. Others had come to Germany hoping for a better life – a decent salary, a stable job – but achieving this proved difficult. Some may have had their asylum application rejected, thereby losing the right to remain in Germany and so spurring a decision to return voluntarily.
Among the elderly, many reminisce about life in their homeland. “My land, my water, my homeland is calling me” is a common refrain. They tell him that they no longer feel comfortable in Germany, or they miss their families who they were unable to bring to Germany.
Most people contacting Armen enquire about the financial support they would receive if they chose to return through the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programmes, the necessary documents and even their flight details. At this early stage, Armen can refer people to counselling centres across Germany, where they can schedule an appointment with a return counsellor. Many also have questions about healthcare in Armenia. Armen explains how they can access the governmental health insurance scheme once they have returned. Through this scheme, returnees can receive free check-ups, treatment, and medication.
My favourite part is when you feel trust
and joy in their voice.
Importantly, the well-being of children is prioritized throughout the process – from the first counselling session to reintegration. In fact, parents are often more concerned about their children than themselves. Many children came to Germany when they were babies or were even born in Germany. Some do not speak Armenian, so parents naturally worry about their reintegration in school back in Armenia. For these cases, Armen explains the reintegration procedure through which children can get support.
Speaking of his work, Armen reflects on being “part of a mechanism that doesn’t just help people, but also helps the country.” Armenia is facing a demographic problem and a deficit of specialists across sectors. Armen is glad to be able to support individuals that are interested in returning, reintegrating, and contributing to their country’s economy.
Alongside his role as a virtual counsellor, Armen will also support the migrants once they have arrived in Armenia. He will issue their payments and guide them through the reintegration process. For him, seeing them succeed makes his job worthwhile. “My favourite part is when, after some time of being in touch, you feel trust and joy in their voice.”
Getting support for voluntary return
If you are interested in learning more about the assisted voluntary return and reintegration programmes, you can find more information on ReturningfromGermany.de. With over 900 counselling centres across Germany, it is easy to find a centre near you.
If you’re interested in counselling in your country of origin, you can get in touch with a virtual counsellor like Armen who speaks your native language. The Virtual Counselling project operates in Armenia, Georgia, and 17 other countries. You can contact IOM’s virtual counsellors through WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, and Facebook in the language with which you are most comfortable.
The return and reintegration programmes are financed by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), the German Government, the Federal States, and the European Union (EU).