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EU toughens stance on migrant returns

Rescued refugees and migrants wait to leave an Italian Coastguard vessel in Palermo, Italy. Francesco Malavolta/UNHCR

More than 125,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, all carrying the hope that they will be able to start new lives in Europe. Many more will have arrived by other means using forged documents or will have overstayed on their visas.

Those from countries subject to conflict or severe human rights abuses such as Syria and Eritrea have a good chance of being able to remain in the European Union as refugees. But the majority will be classified as irregular migrants who, in theory, can be returned to their home countries. 

In practice, many member states lack the capacity to round up and return thousands of undocumented migrants and failed asylum-seekers to home countries that are often reluctant to receive them.

In 2014, more than half a million third-country nationals were found to be “illegally present” in the EU. The vast majority were issued with so-called return decisions ordering them to leave within a prescribed period. Those who didn’t comply were supposed to be removed by force, but in reality only about 40 percent were, according to Eurostat figures.

In some countries, the percentage was considerably lower. Italy, for example, only returned 5,310 irregular migrants in 2014, despite being the most popular landing point for migrants arriving by sea. By contrast, the UK returned 46,610 migrants - 71 percent of the total number of people it issued with return decisions.

Faced with increasing chaos at its borders, the EU Commission is urging member states to take a tougher stance on returns. Draft conclusions from Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels note that “all tools shall be mobilised to promote readmission of illegal migrants to countries of origin and transit,” and that an increased budget will be made available to support more effective returns.

In a 9 June letter to interior ministers, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos pointed out that, “Economic migrants pay high prices to smugglers to bring them to Europe… knowing that once they are in the EU they have a good chance to stay here, even if they are ordered to leave.”

In an effort to increase return rates, Avramopoulos urged EU leaders to make use of “coercive measures,” including the use of detention to prevent migrants absconding before they can be returned.

He called on countries confronted with large numbers of arrivals to take advantage of an emergency clause of the EU Return Directive that allows irregular migrants, including families with children, to be detained in prisons rather than in separate immigration detention facilities, for up to 18 months.
Italy is the only country that has ever applied the emergency clause, during the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers to Lampedusa Island as a result of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The detention of migrants, including minors, for longer periods in prison settings would be viewed as a major retrograde step by rights groups, who have long campaigned for an end to immigration detention altogether. Not only, they argue, does it have negative effects on those detained, particularly children, but there are also more humane alternatives that would cost the taxpayer less.

“I think it represents a hardening of attitudes as part of a general concern about trying to manage the big increase in numbers,” Steve Peers, a law professor at the University of Essex, told IRIN.

Forced fingerprinting

Writing for the UK non-profit website Statewatch, Peers pointed out that the EU Commission also recently published a paper providing guidelines for the use of force – as a last resort – on migrants who refuse to be fingerprinted.

“To say the least, this is hard to square with the EU’s frequent professions of support for the human rights and decent treatment of migrants,” he wrote.

The issue of fingerprinting and identifying migrants on arrival is crucial to improving return rates, noted Avramopoulos in his letter. It is also central to the soon-to-be launched “Hotspot” approach outlined in the European Agenda on Migration, which will see the European Asylum Support Office, Europol and Frontex deploying staff to frontline states, Greece and Italy, to assist with the screening and identification of new arrivals.

Faced with record numbers of boat arrivals in the past year, Greece and Italy have been accused of neglecting to register and fingerprint large numbers of migrants who have then proceeded north through Europe’s border-free Schengen zone to countries such as France and Germany. Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, asylum-seekers can be returned to the first member state where they were registered, but without fingerprint records such returns are impossible.

EU leaders are expected to reach a decision about a deal to relocate 40,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states by the end of July. Key to the agreement will be a commitment by the two frontline states to implement the Hotspot approach and fingerprint all new arrivals.  

“In a way it undercuts the relocation process because it could mean that more [asylum-seekers] will end up in Italy,” said Peers, adding that Greece has remained exempt from returns under the Dublin Regulation because of the poor state of its asylum system and detention conditions.

Return agreements with third countries

Other measures aimed at improving return rates include amending the role of EU border agency Frontex so it can initiate return operations. Currently, Frontex is limited to coordinating returns after being approached by member states. 

The EU also plans to offer various incentives such as trade agreements and development aid to persuade countries of origin, particularly those in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, to take back their citizens through readmission agreements.

Avramopoulos described the EU’s eastern flank as “well-covered” by such agreements with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and nations in the Western Balkans, but pointed out that “the EU has no readmission agreements in force with the North African countries,” although, “not for lack of trying.”

While discussions about migration at Thursday’s EU Summit focused on how to improve return rates, rights groups and NGOs called on EU leaders to rethink policies that are failing to provide protection and adequate reception facilities to large numbers of asylum-seekers and vulnerable migrants. 

Referring to “a crisis of human suffering” at EU borders, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) accused member states of neglecting their humanitarian duty.

“The current system, which includes the Dublin Regulation, is clearly not working. Returning vulnerable people to Italy under the Dublin Regulation should immediately be suspended,” said Loris de Filippi, president of MSF Italy. 

“Urgent action should be taken to allow asylum-seekers entering through EU’s southern borders to get the assistance and protection they are entitled to according to EU directives.”


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