Current European return system just encourages ‘illegal migration’

The European return policy, which aims to return migrants illegally staying on EU territory to their own country, is anything but efficient. This is the conclusion of the European Court of Auditors in a new report. “The current EU return system suffers from inefficiencies that lead to the opposite of its intended effect: to encourage rather than discourage illegal migration,” it said.

The European Union and its Member States have a particularly difficult time returning irregular migrants. Every year since 2008, about half a million non-EU citizens have been ordered to leave the EU, but less than one in five of these actually return. The Court’s report covers the period between 2015, when the European Commission launched a return action plan, and 2020.


The Court of Audit notes that EU policy has been of little consequence. One of the main reasons is that cooperation with the countries of origin is difficult. The EU has concluded 18 legally binding readmission agreements and is in talks with 6 other countries and seeking practical cooperation agreements.

Paradoxically enough, this last category, the legally non-binding agreements, leads to success, the Court of Audit notes. This is because the content is flexible and adaptable, while the binding agreements sometimes have to include provisions that the third countries concerned often oppose.

Not with one voice

Another shortcoming is the lack of synergies. The EU does not always speak with one voice when negotiating with non-EU countries, and the Commission has not always worked with the key Member States to ease negotiating processes. That is why some countries see no added value in a cooperation agreement with the EU and prefer bilateral cooperation with individual member states.

The EU is also doing too little to encourage third countries to fulfill their readmission obligations. Adjustments to the visa policy, which allow rightsholders to enter the EU smoothly, can be useful, the Court of Audit points out.

Opposite effect

“The current EU return system suffers from inefficiencies that lead to the opposite of its intended effect: to encourage rather than discourage illegal migration,” summarizes Leo Brincat, the report’s author. “We expect our audit to feed into the debate on the EU’s new migration and asylum pact, as an effective and well-managed readmission policy is an essential part of an integrated migration policy.”

State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) sees “yet another proof that we need a migration pact now” in the report. “We need an unambiguous European policy with precise agreements on screening and control at the external borders. Forced return is the final element of the migration policy, but the report clearly states that voluntary return is insufficiently used. Where reintegration support is used in the context of voluntary return, there are better results for return. Agreements on this are discussed in the European Migration Pact. Without a European Migration Pact, we perpetuate misery, our own and that of those who want to come here and do so in dubious or degrading conditions.”

‘Weakening ourselves world champion’

For Mahdi, we as Europeans are “world champions of weakening ourselves by individually negotiating a return agreement with countries of origin. EU actions yielded only limited results. In addition, the EU Member States do not always speak with one voice. That has to change. Policies and return rates effectively feed irregular migration.”

The State Secretary argues for one binding European return agreement per country of origin, with visa sanctions if necessary if countries do not cooperate. And that has to happen quickly for him.

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