Dealing with refugees was one of the most important issues at the last summit of EU heads of government. Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer demanded that the entire EU must now “put the brakes on asylum”. The Christian Democrat had previously demanded that the EU Commission support Bulgaria with two billion euros in building a fence on the border with Türkiye. So far, however, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has refused to use Brussels money for fences and walls.
According to the European statistics authority, only one in five of the 340,000 illegal migrants who were required to leave the country was actually deported in 2021. While irregular entries into the EU in 2022 have increased significantly compared to the previous year, the number of deportations is far behind the plans. In 2022, less than one in four asylum seekers who were required to leave the country were deported to their home country. This is an issue that has been struggling for a solution in the EU for a long time. “We have a very low return rate,” said EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson on the sidelines of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Stockholm. In Brussels it is said behind closed doors that the number of deportations is actually significantly lower than officially known. The EU Commission’s target for returns has been 70 percent for years.
The majority of asylum seekers coming to Germany, for example, enter unrecognized via the external borders of the European Union. This is shown by data from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees: Among all 151,277 first-time applicants aged 14 and over who arrived in Germany in 2022, “around two-thirds (approximately 101,000) had no Eurodac hit”. Eurodac is an EU database for comparing fingerprints of asylum seekers to prevent multiple applications in different countries. According to the Dublin procedure, people must apply for asylum in the country where they first set foot on European soil. If the asylum seekers are not registered in the Eurodac registration system, they can no longer be transferred back to another European country.
Actually, the vast majority of arriving asylum seekers should have a Eurodac registration by the states on the EU’s external border. This is because only a minority of applicants in Germany travel directly to the Federal Republic without having previously stayed in other European countries. Since 2013 at the latest, all EU countries have been obliged to register every irregularly arriving migrant over the age of 14 and enter them in Eurodac. Because if an asylum seeker arriving in Germany is not registered somewhere else in the EU, Germany automatically becomes responsible for him. This usually means permanent settlement in this country.
In the event of recognition as a person entitled to protection, Germany usually grants legal entitlements to permanent residence three to five years after entry, and most rejected asylum seekers soon receive a residence permit through toleration. Naturalization is then possible six to eight years after entry. The governing coalition wants to make German citizenship possible after three to five years.
The German Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser (SPD), is against putting more pressure on deportations and making it more difficult to issue visas for countries unwilling to take them back. “I’m reluctant to do so, I believe that the route via migration agreements is the better one,” she said. She wants to rely more on “incentives” than on pressure. The new planned measures will probably not lead to a trend reversal in deportations. This is mainly due to the fact that they ignore the deportation practices of the individual EU countries. While countries with high deportation rates such as Denmark, Bulgaria and Ireland invest a lot of money and personnel in returns, countries with few returns such as the Czech Republic, France and Italy spend relatively little on this.
So far, numerous measures and guidelines have been passed, but they have changed little in the misery. Sweden’s government, which will chair the 27 EU countries until June of this year, has now proposed “Europeanizing” the deportation of illegal migrants to countries of transit or origin, i.e. more cooperation between member states on returns, more European funds the reintegration of refugees in their homeland and more pressure on countries of origin.
According to a proposal by Interior Commissioner Johansson, there should be advisors in every EU country to encourage illegal migrants to return voluntarily. At the same time, according to Johansson, voluntary returnees should be given professional and financial support for reintegration in their home country. In order to be able to accelerate the deportation process, more digitization should help. In addition, the EU border protection agency Frontex is to be more active in advising on and carrying out “return operations”.
Sweden wants to put more pressure on the countries of origin of the illegal migrants. Specifically, the aim is to make it even more difficult than before for citizens of African countries who refuse to take back their rejected nationals seeking protection to obtain a visa for the EU. Since 2020, the EU has been able to use visas as a means of exerting pressure on countries of origin, but so far there has only been one case in which this has happened: in the case of the small West African state of Gambia.
But not only the current presidency of the EU, with a government supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats, indicates a stricter course, Italy plays an equally important role. On the one hand, it is the main arrival country in the EU for migration across the Mediterranean – at the same time, a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni, who had already announced tough action against migration during the election campaign, has been in power there since October.
The election program stated that illegal migration should be restricted by stricter border controls and a so-called ship blockade. In addition, Meloni and her coalition had planned to set up so-called hotspots outside the EU, controlled by the EU, in order to check asylum applications there and to better control migration flows in the future – including more effective deportations.
Rome’s recently held government consultations in Tunisia and Egypt focused on building better relations with the governments there in order to facilitate deportations. Italy can only return the Tunisians and Egyptians whose asylum applications have been rejected if their home countries agree. At the same time, the Italians want the two North African countries to ensure that fewer migrants leave their coasts for Italy in the future. As a concession, Italy has offered the two countries larger quotas for legal migration. Rome allows a fixed number of migrant workers to enter the country every year with the “decreto flussi”. Last year, 69,700 people were allowed to enter Italy, 27,000 of them only as seasonal workers. It remains to be seen whether the negotiations with Tunisia and Egypt will work in the interests of the Italian government. Previous Italian governments have already concluded agreements with Tunisia for deportations in return for investments. They didn’t show any great success. Although Tunisia is the country to which Italy deports the most, the absolute numbers lag behind the EU average. However, the idea of forging closer ties overall with the countries of origin and departure is now being adopted as a strategy by the other EU countries. Because a constant exchange helps these countries to feel that they are taken seriously as partners.
A problem at the migration summit in Brussels was therefore Italy’s handling of the sea rescue ships from non-governmental organizations. Meloni’s government recently issued a code for them that makes their work more difficult and aims to ensure that the other EU countries, under whose flags the ships sail, take more responsibility in the asylum process of the migrants on board – in return to relieve Italy as the country of first arrival . Countries like Germany or France, which would be affected, are fighting back. For one simple reason: while in Italy there is bureaucratic work with the many arrivals of refugees, many then travel on. France and Germany therefore take in significantly more asylum seekers every year.
The view of illegal migration in the EU has changed significantly in recent years. The political focus of the debate has shifted far to the right, it’s about defence, expulsion, repatriation. Apart from Germany, there is no longer a large EU country that defines immigration as fundamentally positive. The issue of migration splits the EU into two camps. One consists of countries like Italy, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria, which are currently receiving many illegal immigrants and refugees from Africa and Asia. According to the EU rules, which no one adheres to, these so-called primary host states, where the migrants enter the EU, should take care of the people – register them, accommodate them, examine their asylum applications.
In practice, however, they often let the immigrants move on to other EU countries such as Austria, Belgium or the Netherlands. These so-called secondary receiving states form a different camp in the immigration debate. They no longer want to put up with border countries simply pushing migrants on within the EU.
In Brussels there was also a struggle to summarize various positions in a final declaration on which everyone can agree. The result: The EU’s migration policy is becoming tougher, especially towards the outside world. States that do not want to take back rejected asylum seekers must expect, for example, that the EU will remove visa exemptions or preferential tariffs. In the future, travel and trade agreements will be a lever to put pressure on migration policy.
In addition, the governments called on the EU Commission to help the member states with money to expand border protection. The corresponding wording in the final declaration was tightened up compared to the drafts – but not so clearly that the Commission would now have to do what it has so far strictly refused to do, namely to pay directly for steel fences and barbed wire at the EU’s external borders. The EU countries will have to finance this from their own budgets in the future as well. However, you can get relief from Brussels: In future, the Commission should provide more money to pay for other border protection infrastructure, such as cameras and sensors or vehicles and watchtowers. This leaves EU governments with more money of their own for fences and walls.
The summit’s conclusions now state that EU funds should be mobilized for “infrastructure” at the borders, involving cameras and aerial surveillance, such as at Bulgaria’s land border with Türkiye. The crucial question of whether asylum seekers can be detained at Europe’s external borders is not addressed in the summit decision. According to the legal majority, according to current EU law, nobody should be stopped illegally crossing the border into the EU as soon as they claim to be seeking asylum – which almost all migrants apprehended do. This legal opinion is also shared by the EU Commission. Nevertheless, its President Ursula von der Leyen made a powerful announcement after the summit: “We will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration.”
Governments such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria also complain that countries of arrival such as Italy, Bulgaria and Greece do not register all refugees, as is required, but let them continue their journey. These people then apply for asylum in Belgium or Germany, for example. Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said it was “unacceptable that countries like Belgium and the Netherlands take on a disproportionate share of the work and that there is no solidarity from other European countries”.
The EU Commission therefore proposed relaxing the rules for state aid from national governments and reallocating funding from Brussels. In particular, it is disputed how much the subsidy regulations are to be relaxed. In the EU, governments must have their subsidies approved by the Commission. This is to prevent companies from playing Member States off against each other and from distorting the internal market.
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