24th Sep 2020

EU to have common rules for returning illegal migrants

  • The measures were agreed after lengthy negotiations (Photo: AFM)

After nearly three years of political wrangling, the 27-nation EU has struck a deal on how to cope with the eight million migrants that have illegally entered European territory.

During their Thursday meeting in Luxembourg (5 June), EU interior ministers gave the go-ahead to a law - dubbed the return directive - establishing "common standards and procedures" for returning those non-EU nationals who do not or no longer fulfil the conditions for entry, stay or residence in a member state.

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"This is a real step forward," EU home affairs commissioner Jacques Barrot said after all critics of the proposal - Belgium, Greece, Malta and the Czech Republic - dropped their reservations.

Slovene interior minister Dragutin Mate, speaking on behalf of his country's EU presidency, expressed "confidence" that the European Parliament would back the law in an early, so-called first reading, approval on 18 June.

"All shadow rapporteurs [from the parliament's political groups] backed the compromise text yesterday," Mr Mate said, although he added that "every single vote will count in the end".

In the run up to Thursday's agreement, a number of issues were still causing controversy.

One of them is linked to the maximum period an migrant can be kept in detention after setting foot on the union's territory, with organisations active in asylum policy affairs previously describing systematic detentions as "inhumane and unwarranted".

The return directive approved by EU ministers says: "each member state shall set a limited period of detention, which may not exceed six months."

However, governments will be allowed to extend the six-month-period for an additional twelve months, but only in "very specific circumstances" such as lack of co-operation by a migrant or delays in obtaining necessary documentation from their home country.

Currently, the maximum detention period is decided by each government. For example, France has a 30-day limit on detention, while Malta has an 18-month maximum, and the UK imposes no limit.

According to Mr Barrot, the new legal setting will "improve" the situation for those waiting for expulsion, as there are currently nine EU countries with open-ended detention.

The return directive also caps the length of the entry ban after expulsion. It should not exceed five years unless a person "represents a serious threat to public policy, public security or to national security".

The very last stumbling bloc to the directive's approval came from a small group of countries including Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and the Czech Republic, who complained that the obligation of "free legal assistance" would prove too costly.

In response, the European Commission committed itself to using the European Return Fund to help ease the financial burden.

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