The EU effort to return unsuccessful asylum seekers is failing, the EU policy and financial watchdog has warned. Half a million people are ordered to leave the EU each year, but less than a fifth are actually sent home.
Since the early 2000s, the EU has agreed deals with more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, and the Gambia, to send back migrants whose asylum claims in Europe were rejected.
Every year as many as half a million people are ordered to leave the European Union because they entered or are staying "illegally", usually after losing their asylum appeal, according to the European Court of Auditors (ECA), an agency that scrutinizes EU policies and finances.
Why aren’t people being returned?
The ECA has done an audit of the returns policy over the 2015 to mid-2020 period, focusing on the 10 countries with the biggest numbers of non-returned irregular migrants. It says that fewer than one in three migrants ordered to leave the European Union actually do, and that ratio drops to less than one in five when the country they are told to return to is outside the European continent.
One of the reasons for this low rate is that European countries are not good at collecting and sharing data with each other – they can’t even agree on how many irregular migrants are ordered to leave, the ECA report says. Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, says that the figure is around 500,000 migrants per year. But Frontex, the EU border agency which also helps with returns, uses a different methodology and says the figure is lower.
Another reason for the inefficiency of the returns process is that Brussels is meant to come up with common rules and legislation in this area, but member states retain responsibility for return decisions and how they are carried out.
The ECA report says that one of the main sticking points with readmission agreements is the EU’s insistence on the so-called "third-country national" clause, which means that a country has to agree to take back not just their own nationals but migrants who travel through their territory as well. A "more flexible approach" would help to make countries sign up to such deals and stick to them, the ECA suggests.
The report also recommends that the EU boost incentives to persuade countries to go along with agreements. This already happens by linking EU visas to compliance: according to the ECA, the visa policy is the only strategy that has worked to encourage non-EU countries to cooperate.
Why does it matter?
One of the aims of an effective returns system, according to the ECA, is to discourage people from making the journey to Europe – by sending the message that if they try to come to Europe "illegally," they will end up being shipped back home.
But the ECA says its audit shows that the current system has actually encouraged people to come to Europe by irregular means instead. Leo Brincat, the lead author of the report, told journalists this week that the accumulation of such shortfalls had hampered the goal of swiftly returning irregular migrants.
"Rather than discouraging, they end up actually encouraging illegal migration," he said. "It is well known among the migrants that the returns are not effective, so this can actually encourage them to come even more."