This article introduces the theme and scope of this Special Themed Section on the role of ‘voluntariness’ in the governance of migration. It provides an overarching framework for defining and operationalising the notion of voluntariness in the field of migration studies; and for investigating how voluntariness works across different sites, situations and in distinct national contexts. We understand voluntariness as a general principle and instrument that (re)produces the active participation of different actors across society in the (state-driven) management of migration. This focus leads us to explore key dimensions in the shifting (neo-liberal) governmentality of migration in contemporary societies. The introduction makes the case for bringing together seemingly disparate examples and case studies in order to shed new light on how certain ascribed meanings and understandings of voluntariness can shape the actions of very different subjects involved in contemporary bordering processes.