The EU strategy on returns: between the devil and the deep blue sea

On 27 April 2021, the EU Commission published its first EU Strategy on voluntary return and reintegration. The strategy is envisaged by the New Pact on Migration and Asylum as an integral policy for a common EU system for returns. It conceives actions in seven areas with the aim of increasing the number of voluntary returns. If, on paper, the text recognizes voluntary return as being more efficient, cost-effective and preferable to forced return, in practice this is contradicted by several ongoing legislative proposals which make access to voluntary return more difficult. The text highlights the role of “swift and efficient return border procedures” to encourage migrants to take up voluntary returns, including for people in administrative detention and those whose asylum application is still pending. The Strategy increases the role of Frontex in promoting voluntary returns, despite the growing scrutiny into the lack of accountability and the potential involvement of the agency in human rights violations.

 “Voluntary” returns?

Increasing the rate of returns is one of the main objectives of the European Pact on Migration and Asylum. The term “return” appears nearly 100 times in the Commission Communication on the Pact alone – while the term “rights” only 14. While forced return remains a central component of the EU return system, the objective of this strategy is to develop a more uniform and coordinated approach that acknowledges the potential of voluntariness within the return process. Even though the number of returnees is still considered a strong indicator for the effectiveness of any return policy, this strategy recognizes that “it is important to not only consider the return rates but also the situation of the individuals concerned, enabling their return in a dignified manner and taking into account their reintegration prospects once they return to their country of origin”.

On paper, the strategy – a non-binding instrument – prioritises voluntary over forced return, but in practice this is contradicted by several binding legislative proposals which make access to voluntary return more difficult. For instance, the Commission proposal for a Recast Return Directive prohibits EU Member States from granting a period for voluntary departure in a broad number of circumstances which legitimise a risk of absconding. Moreover, migrants are openly encouraged to return from the very moment they arrive in the EU through return counselling – which can be provided by Frontex – even during their asylum application, and by the constant threat of swift and efficient return procedures, including at borders, for those who do not agree to return voluntarily. Encouraging voluntary returns through “swift and efficient return border procedures” confirms the EU “carrot and stick” approach, for which “an efficient return border procedure will also facilitate and encourage voluntary returns since people will be available and more willing to cooperate with the authorities” (EU Strategy on voluntary return and reintegration,p.7).

Frontex will have an increasing role in voluntary returns

With its reinforced mandate, Frontex will play a crucial role in the activities of return and reintegration assistance to returnees. In mid-2022, Frontex will take over the activities of the European Return and Reintegration Network (ERRIN). The full operationalisation of the Agency’s mandate is a gradual process that started in May 2021 with a first Frontex pilot for individual joint reintegration support to returnees from the EU. In collaboration with ICMPD, the Agency will also be involved in the development of a common curriculum for return counsellors, which aims at providing practitioners with teaching modules on all aspects of return policy and practice. Frontex will support Member States by deploying return experts trained in return counselling as part of the standing corps. In addition, it will have an increased role in “pre-return counselling (e.g. outreach campaigns to migrants), post-arrival support and monitoring the effectiveness of reintegration assistance.

Further technical support and the new roles on return foreseen by the Pact

The strategy indicates that additional technical support will be guaranteed by the Return Coordinator and the High Level Network for Return, including representatives from Member States. They will assist the coordination of national authorities on voluntary return and reintegration strategies and programmes, to promote uniformity between national actions and this strategy, and to promote the exchange of best practices among Member States. This support aims at achieving a comprehensive governance framework as set out in the proposal for a Regulation on Asylum and Migration Management.

Prioritising voluntary over forced returns is a welcome step, but it is not sufficient

On the Roadmap published on 15 December 2020, the European Commission describes “shaping returns to respond to the needs of the individual” as one of the main objectives for the EU and EU agencies and the Member States. If, on the one hand, this strategy recognizes voluntary return as being more efficient and preferable to forced return, the EU Commission commitment to respond to the needs of the individual remains on many levels unclear in the document published in April 2021.

Firstly, it is crucial to acknowledge that return is not the best option for all. Secondly, when voluntary return is possible, EU policies should ensure that people and their choices come first. Human choices are not pre-packaged products, but rather the result of accurate evaluations that require time and services to allow people to explore all different options, including the possibility to remain regularly in the EU. While the Commission’s efforts to prioritise voluntary over forced returns are a welcome step, encouraging people to return by all possible means and from the very moment they arrive at borders is far from being a strategy that meets migrants’ freedom of choice nor their needs.

Present data on voluntary returns are not clear. According to the EU Commission, “the share of voluntary returns is currently 27% of all departures from the EU”. Frontex Risk analysis 2020, instead, reported that 49 % of returns are voluntary (table 13, p. 67).

Cover: Unsplash – Nathan Dumlao