Friday

20th Jan 2017

Trapped inside Europe: Undocumented migrants unable to leave

An unknown number of migrants in the EU are caught in a legal limbo, denied basic rights in some member states and unable to return to their home countries.

Some attempt to go home but are apprehended at the borders and sent back to the member state where they are made homeless because they do not legally exist on paper.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Unretournable migrants in Europe have no legal status and no way of going home (Photo: Zalmai)

“My life is catastrophic,” 29-year old Hagop, who arrived in Belgium with his mother and sister from Turkey as a small child, told this website by phone.

An ethnic Armenian, Hagop, who does not want to reveal his last name, says Turkey refuses to recognise his existence. Belgium does not recognise him either.

Caught between the two, he says he’s been denied higher education, has no right to work, no right to residence in Belgium, and cannot return to Turkey despite attempts.

“They give me no chance, no chance, no chance … no chance,” he said.

Hagop’s story is not unique.

Pro-rights groups often describe EU migrant policy-making in terms of "fortress Europe," where the idea is to keep irregular migrants from making it into the EU.

The same could be said for those seeking to leave.

As people are caught in legal and administrative webs that are unable to issue them any documents, a subgroup of migrants known as the “unreturnables” has emerged over the years.

The legal complexities and diverging approaches by national authorities vary widely across member states.

Some fall under a "tolerated stay" category, which means the official postponement of the return or removal order gives them the permission to stay pending their return with some additional rights.

Others get the same orders but no rights, while others get no orders and no rights.

In the UK, such people can be detained indefinitely, while others are sent to war zones despite the inherent risks.

Jacob, a 34-year-old Somalian national, was released four weeks ago from the Harmondsworth detention centre, a facility run by the American private security firm Geo Group.

He had spent over two years at Harmondsworth where he said he witnessed people attempt to take their own lives.

“They took my liberty for two years and two months. I still don’t understand why they detained me for that long,” he told EUobserver in a phone interview.

Jacob’s ordeal had started long before when he arrived as an undocumented migrant in 1994.

With no papers, he was trapped in the UK because of Somalia’s warring factions. But in April 2008, he agreed to return to Mogadishu after having spent 10 months at the UK Colnbrook immigration removal centre.

He was told his travel safety to Mogadishu would be guaranteed, but the two G4S security guards who had escorted him from the UK allegedly abandoned him in Nairobi.

“As soon as we get off the plane, they said ‘We are not coming with you.' They said they would be kidnapped or shot at. I said: ‘How about me, how about my safety?’,” he recalls.

He was taken to a small plane by Kenyan immigration and robbed soon after arriving at Mogadishu’s coastal airport.

“I couldn’t argue with them because I was thinking maybe I was going to get shot,” he said of the two thieves.

Spotted wondering dazed about the airport by African Union soldiers, he was told to re-board the same plane and return to Nairobi.

But the flight took him to Berbera, the de facto capital of Somiland where he was kidnapped.

His abductors wrapped his head in a bed sheet and forced him onto a bus.

He later managed to escape and eventually made it back to Nairobi, where the UK high commissioner, having heard his ordeal, bought him a ticket to London Heathrow airport.

Three years later, he found himself once again in a detention centre. He is now taking the UK to court for unlawful detention.

Jerome Phelps at the UK-based Detention Action, an NGO working for migrant rights, says many people like Jacob cannot be deported because they cannot get travel documents due to dangers and legal barriers.

“There is this commitment to detain people for as long as it takes in order to deport them - especially ex-offenders - because of political pressure on the issue,” he said.

Dozens more similar testimonies were collected in a report published earlier this week by rights groups from the UK, Hungary, Belgium, France, and the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

The 102-page report notes unreturnable migrants should not be detained if they cannot be returned. It recommends granting them temporary permits so they can work and access basic rights, like healthcare.

The EU, for its part, lacks any legal framework that defines and deals with unreturnable migrants.

The European commission says persons with unclear citizenship or identity and who are not asylum applicants fall under national legislation dealing with residence permits.

“This area is not harmonised at EU level,” said a commission spokesperson.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Caritas EuropaEU States to Join Pope Francis’s Appeal to Care for Migrant Children
  2. UNICEFNumber of Unaccompanied Children Arriving by sea to Italy Doubles in 2016
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers"Nordic Matters" Help Forge Closer Bonds Between the UK and the Nordic Region
  4. Computers, Privacy & Data ProtectionThe age of Intelligent Machines: join the Conference on 25-27 January 2017
  5. Martens CentreNo Better way to Lift Your Monday Blues Than to Gloss Over our Political Cartoons
  6. Dialogue PlatformThe Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge
  7. European Free AllianceMinority Rights and Autonomy are a European Normality
  8. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Create EU Competitiveness Post-Brexit? Seminar on January 24th
  9. European Jewish CongressSchulz to be Awarded the European Medal for Tolerance for his Stand Against Populism
  10. Nordic Council of Ministers"Adventures in Moominland" Kick Off Nordic Matters Festival in London
  11. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhDs Across Europe on the Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU - Apply Now!
  12. Dialogue PlatformInterview: Fethullah Gulen Condemns Assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Zero Waste EuropePublic Support Needed to Promote Zero Waste in More Municipalities
  2. Belgrade Security ForumEU Cannot Afford to Ignore the Western Balkans as Populism Surges
  3. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen Calls for an Investigation on the Assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey
  4. World VisionAmid EU Talks on Migration, Children on the Move Remain Forgotten and Unprotected
  5. Centre Maurits CoppietersAlex Salmond Receives Coppieters Award for His Service to Scotland and Europe
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsStrong Support for Hamburg Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
  7. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Use Bioenergy Coming From Forests in a Sustainable Way?
  8. Counter BalanceReport Reveals Corrupt but Legal Practices in Development Finance
  9. Swedish EnterprisesMEPs and Business Representatives Debate on the Future of the EU at Winter Mingle
  10. ACCAFifty Key Factors in the Public Sector Accountants Need to Prepare for
  11. UNICEFSchool “as Vital as Food and Medicine” for Children Caught up in Conflict
  12. European Jewish CongressEJC President Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Result of Austrian Presidential Election