Published: 2023-01-26 20:58
Last Updated: 2023-03-27 14:19
EU interior ministers on Thursday discussed how to return irregular migrants to their home countries more effectively -- with some arguing for limiting visas to uncooperative nations.
"Returning those who have been denied asylum in Europe is a really important issue," said Maria Malmer Stenergard, migration minister for Sweden, which hosted the meeting as current holder of the EU presidency.
European Commission statistics show that in 2021, out of 340,500 orders for migrants to be returned to their countries of origin, only 21 percent were carried out.
"We have a very low return rate," noted EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson.
"We can do significant progress here to increase the numbers of returns and have it more effective and quicker," she said.
The Swedish EU presidency believes cooperation could be improved with countries outside the EU whose citizens make up significant numbers of irregular migrants.
Malmer Stenergard said it was "crucial" that EU member states use the full weight of their governments -- including leveraging development aid -- to press third countries on the returns issue.
The EU funds various reintegration programmes in countries that readmit their citizens who have been denied asylum in Europe.
These are separate from deportations or forced returns based on a court or administrative order, which are often carried out under escort and typically do not include in-country assistance.
The EU has had a mechanism in place since 2020 to use visa issuance as a lever against countries that refuse to take back their nationals or decline to issue them with the necessary travel papers.
But so far that measure has only been applied to Gambia, for whose citizens getting a Schengen visa is more difficult and costly.
The commission in 2021 proposed the mechanism be extended to Bangladesh and Iraq, but that has not happened.
Johansson said after a November visit to Bangladesh that the threat of the visa sanction has prompted Dhaka to become more "politically open" to accepting irregular migrants back from Europe.
EU leaders in December 2021 called for "all relevant tools" to be used to push migrant-originating countries to cooperate on readmissions, including access to development aid, trade and visas.
France backed a carrot-and-stick approach, with its junior minister for citizen affairs, Sonia Backes, saying in Stockholm that first "constructive dialogue" should be used.
That "should then be hardened by restrictive measures if results aren't met," she said.
Germany however has reservations about that approach.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said accords signed, especially with countries in north Africa, "on one hand allowed legal paths (for migration), and on the other, effective returns."
- Austria backs fence -
The overall tone on migration has hardened in Europe since 2015-2016, when it took in over a million asylum-seekers, most of them Syrians fleeing the war in their country.
The bloc in 2016 struck a deal with Turkey for it to prevent much of the onward passage of irregular migrants into Europe.
Austria is backing the construction of a fence along the border of EU member Bulgaria with Turkey to further reduce the flow of asylum-seekers.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said on Monday, during a visit to that border region, that the fence would cost around two billion euros and he called on the European Commission to fund it.
The commission has been reluctant to do that, emphasizing instead the role of Frontex, the bloc's border patrol agency, that EU member states can call on.
Juan Fernando Lopez, the chair of the European Parliament's Justice and Home Affairs committee said as he went in to attend the Stockholm meeting that "a fence might be part of an extraordinary measure... but never the solution itself."