Thursday

21st Jan 2021

EU to step up migrant returns

  • The EU will be spearheading new return measures, set to be presented before the end of this month. (Photo: Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI))

New EU proposals on sending unwanted migrants back to their homes countries and creating new legal routes for those requiring protection are set to be unveiled before the end of the month.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, told MEPs on Wednesday (13 September) that people with no rights to stay in Europe must be sent home.

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"When only 36 percent of irregular migrants are returned, it is clear we need to significantly step up our work," he said in his state of the union speech in Strasbourg.

He said the commission will present a new set of proposals, with an emphasis on "returns, solidarity with Africa and opening legal pathways."

The EU has had a return directive in place since 2010 and proposed, earlier this year, additional measures followed by controversial recommendations that allowed police to lock up children "as a last resort".

In a letter addressed to European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, Juncker spoke of "targeted measures" on returns and getting member states to resettle more refugees as a part of his legal route initiative.

Juncker said he backed the UN's call to resettle a further 40,000 refugees from Libya and the surrounding countries. Over 42,800 people in Libya are registered by the UN as refugees and asylum seekers. The UN is also currently in talks with Tripoli on setting up a reception centre.

Interior ministers discuss returns

However, in Brussels on Thursday, interior ministers from the EU states will keep their focus on shipping people home.

The ministers are meeting to thrash out ideas on stepping up the pace of returns, removing internal administrative bottlenecks, and forcing reluctant countries to take back their nationals.

No discussion is set to take place on legal routes, a proposition that Juncker on Wednesday said was needed to stop people from taking the perilous journeys towards Europe in the first place.

Instead, one senior EU official told reporters earlier this week that member states will "use deliberate clear signals" to force returns onto uncooperative countries, pointing out Bangladesh as a problem state.

The number of Bangladeshis arriving from Libya to Italy had spiked over the past year, up until late summer, following a wave of fake job adverts from recruitment agencies. In June, they had ranked second in the terms of arrivals along the central Mediterranean route.

Draft conclusions of the ministerial meeting, leaked by British civil group, Statewatch, note that ministers want to link returns to visa policy and make sure that the more powerful European Border and Coast Guard, also known as Frontex, will be able to mobilise to its "full potential" on the issue.

So far this year, the Warsaw-based border agency has coordinated the return of some 9,575 people in 222 operations. Last year, it sent back 10,698.

But pressure to increase the pace of returns remains high and a priority among EU leaders, who also claim their policies have resulted in the sharp drop of migrants disembarking from the Libyan coast.

Among them is Juncker, who said the number of people leaving Libya in August went down by 81 percent compared to the same month last year, despite widespread reports that the Italians are paying off the Libyan militia.

Italy has denied the allegation, but a senior EU official in Brussels said the EU has entrusted Rome to spearhead the work in Libya.

"We have even allocated a lot of funds to the Italian government to work with the Libyan authorities with whom ever they think is appropriate," noted the official.

Ministers are also expected on Thursday to increase support for the Libyan coastguard, which has plucked an estimated 23,000 from its territorial waters in 2016 up until the first half of 2017, and returned them to Libya.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is also present in Libya, gave other reasons for why fewer people are leaving the country.

On Wednesday, Eugenio Ambrosi, the IOM's Brussels office regional director, told reporters that a spike in fighting among different militia groups, where boats usually disembark from, and unusually rough seas also played a factor in the drop of arrivals in August.

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