The Progressive Post

On migration, Europe’s fixation with returns does not work


Forcing undocumented migrants to leave the EU (commonly referred to as ‘returns’ in EU policy lingo) has become one of the key pillars of how the EU manages migration at its borders and within its territory. The underlying assumption is that more and quicker returns will deter people from coming to Europe, will help ‘fight irregular migration’ and will make everything – from asylum procedures to reception – more efficient. But this assumption is starting to show deep cracks: it is harmful to people and does not address the realities of migration.

When the European Council established its common migration and asylum policy in 1999, ‘return’ was mainly referred to in the context of assistance to countries of origin, concerning voluntary return, and to help them cope with their readmission agreements. Since the EU adopted its Return Directive in 2008, the push for more and quicker deportations has grown ever stronger. In 2018, the Commission re-opened the Return Directive to significantly step up the return of undocumented migrants. The 2020 EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, a set of proposals that aim to overhaul the EU migration and asylum system, would speed up deportations while lowering procedural safeguards.

In 2022, in line with the Pact provisions, the European Commission appointed an EU Return Coordinator and launched the High-Level Network on Returns, composed of member states’ representatives, to strengthen the coordination and boost returns in the EU. The EU border agency Frontex will ‘strengthen [its] return capacities,’ with €277.5 million budgeted from 2024 onwards. Since the start of 2023, the European Commission has released a Policy Document aimed at increasing and speeding up returns as well as a recommendation for member states to expedite returns by promoting the mutual recognition of return decisions.

Violence linked to deportations

Terminology is not neutral. What the EU institutions call ‘returns’ covers in fact the violent practice of deportations, often uprooting people from the life they had been building for themselves and their families in Europe. The practice of deporting people comes with high levels of violence: people are often handcuffed, pushed into airplanes and left in places they may not even know. Reports of violence against people being deported on flights coordinated by Frontex started surfacing in 2019. But more than 20 years prior to those reports, in 1998, Semira Adamu was suffocated to death by four police officers during a deportation from Belgium to Nigeria on a commercial flight. Fellow passengers on commercial flights who resist inhumane treatment against people being deported or activists attempting to prevent the take-off are also often criminalised.

Appealing against a deportation decision is becoming ever more difficult. According to the EU Migration Pact, people will only have seven working days to appeal against negative decisions in border procedures, and they could be deported while waiting for the outcome of their appeal. To further speed up return procedures, the Commission recently recommended that member states take steps to ensure that remedy can be exercised from a third country – through legal representation and videoconferencing. In other words, it is expected that a person appeals against their deportation once they have been deported, thousands of kilometres away from Europe.

The focus on deportation is ramping up an ever-growing immigration detention system that locks up more than 100,000 people every year across Europe, including children and families. This is because it is believed that more detention will lead to more deportation, despite no evidence of this effect. On the contrary, immigration detention has proven to be extremely harmful for people, even for short periods of time. We also now have clear international standards that detaining children for immigration reasons is always a child rights violation and never in their best interests. Governments have committed to end the detention of children – yet the EU’s proposals in the Pact would only increase it.

Returns as vehicle of irregularity

Europe’s obsession with returns is also based on the assumption that if you do not qualify for international protection, then you have no right to stay in the EU. What this approach blatantly overlooks is that migration is more complex than ‘asylum-or-return’. People move for many different reasons and may have a right to access residence permits other than those linked to asylum. In fact, there are at least 60 different types of national permits in European countries that are granted for humanitarian, medical, family or other reasons. Dividing people between asylum and return procedures would de facto block access to all of these other pathways to a residence permit. If a person cannot be returned (for legal or practical reasons), they are left in a legal limbo where they remain in Europe but are often excluded from accessing residence permits, and are forced to live precarious lives. When the Italian government abolished its humanitarian permit in 2018, it is estimated that more than 37,000 people became undocumented.

Moving away from deportations

It’s time for a U-turn in how Europe manages migration, to focus on decent pathways for people to access residence permits that allow them to live and work in dignity and safety. Some countries have taken steps in this direction already. Germany passed a law in 2022 that will make it easier for people whose deportation order was suspended to access long-term residence permits. In 2021, Spain adopted a reform that has allowed over 16,000 young migrants to access residence and work permits in the country. In 2022, Ireland granted residence permits to almost 5,000 people through a temporary regularisation programme. 

Moving away from deportations would mean recognising the different types of protection needs and human rights obligations that should apply to people in the EU and at its borders, ensuring that national protection statuses are reinforced as policy measures, and that people have access to them. Governments – in concertation with civil society and other stakeholders – would design and implement fair regularisation measures that grant residence permits to people living in an irregular situation in Europe. The EU must shift its focus on returns and support these measures instead.

Photo credits: Mrad

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