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27th Jun 2022

Internal paper lays out EU splits on 'returning' migrants

  • The internal EU document laid bare the policy differences between member states on returns (Photo: Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI))

The European Commission's proposal for member states to sponsor returns of failed asylum seekers is proving contentious.

A document obtained by EUobserver through freedom of information requests reveal three major divisions among national capitals, as the internal debate continues.

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  • At least one EU state wants to reduce the eight-month deadline to five to six weeks (Photo: EUobserver)

The sticking-points revolve around timing, applications for international protection, and failed asylum-seekers hiding from authorities.

Those splits may have evolved, since the document dates from earlier this year.

But they offer a glimpse into the thinking of the Council, the co-legislator representing member states.

The sponsorship proposal, first announced by the commission last September, aims to bridge the gaps in solidarity and responsibility that have deadlocked migration and asylum reforms since 2016.

The basic premise offers a member state an alternative to relocation - whereby an asylum seeker is sent to another member state.

Now that state can instead offer to help another member state send a failed asylum-seeker back to their country of origin.

For example, France can offer to sponsor the return of a failed asylum-seeker in Greece.

But if, after eight months, the failed seeker is still not returned, then he or she is transferred from Greece to France.

Austria and Hungary say this is relocation "through the backdoor", whereas southern member states - who mostly comprise the 'entry point' to Europe - want mandatory redistribution of arriving asylum-seekers.

Malta had earlier this year proposed to lower that eight-month deadline by a couple of months.

However, the council document suggests other so-called "frontline member states" want it further reduced.

"For one delegation this period should be reduced to four months, while another delegation considered that it should be not longer than five-six weeks," noted the document.

Although not specifically mentioned in the document, frontline member states typically refer to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain.

The second issue deals with subsequent applications for international protection.

For example, Greece transfers a failed asylum-seeker to France, because Paris was unable to return him or her after the eight months.

Once that person arrives in France, he or she then lodges a new application for asylum.

The commission's proposal does not explicitly regulate responsibility in such cases, leaving it up to EU states to figure it out.

The internal document says most EU states believe the responsibility should be on the sponsoring state (in this case France), if the request was made after the transfer.

However, others disagreed.

They also complained over administrative issues, while others said any subsequent application should be dismissed if no new relevant facts are presented.

The third big issue deals with migrants who abscond during a return procedure.

The commission's proposal does not clarify how to respond in such cases.

It is also unclear how the eight month period would be counted.

Some EU states said the counting of the eight month period should be suspended, if the migrant to be returned cannot be found.

Others disagreed. Some said a new rule should instead be introduced to terminate the return sponsorship.

There was also no consensus of what would happen if the migrant reappears in an altogether different member state.

All these problems were discussed behind closed doors in January. It is possible they have since shifted.

But it also likely disagreements remain. The Brussels-based think tank, European Policy Centre, has described return sponsorships as "one of the most controversial in the negotiations."

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