Facing an increase in arrivals and asylum applications compared to 2021, the EU and member states have gone into return and prevention mode.

The European Commission estimates the number of asylum applications reached more than 900,000 in 2022 and the bloc saw 330,000 “irregular” border crossings through the year. The number of people arriving is not certain, given that the statistics from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) measures crossings not people, so the statistics do not account for the same individuals crossing several borders. Reportedly, the EU is on “alert” over arrivals and “is becoming increasingly worried” about the number of requests lodged by nationals of countries such as “India, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt and Peru”. Figures from Frontex however, reveal that: “Syrians, Afghans and Tunisians together accounted for 47% of the detections in 2022” and that “The number of Syrians roughly doubled to 94 000”. In terms of asylum applications, by far the largest numbers of applications are lodged by people fleeing Syria and Afghanistan. Other major nationalities include Turkey, Venezuela and Colombia. Further, both ECRE and recently its Swedish member organisation FARR have debunked the myth that the majority of asylum seekers do not qualify for protection – an idea often repeated by EU officials based on first instance decisions not accounting for the full asylum procedures.

Regardless, following the launch of the policy document ‘Towards an Operational Strategy for More Effective Returns’ by the Commission on 24 January proposals and debates continue to focus on returns, prevention and restrictions. In a letter sent on 26 January to EU heads of state, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reportedly called for member states to: “work together to strengthen controls at the EU’s external borders along with return procedures, reducing incentives for secondary movement and promoting effective solidarity”. This position is also reflected in the debates in advance of the Special European Council meeting on 9 and 10 February, with von der Leyen, also focusing on surveillance technology, stating: “The most pressing issues right now are at the land border between Bulgaria and Türkiye. We can strengthen the border with management capabilities. We can also provide infrastructure and equipment like drones and radar and other means of surveillance, as we have done in the last years, for example, in Romania, we’ve done it in Spain and Greece and in Poland, and we can increase the presence of Frontex”.

Statewatch has published the draft conclusions for the upcoming European Council meeting, revealing a focus on prevention and return. The draft conclusions include control of EU external borders with the Council calling “for the rapid conclusion of negotiations on new and revised Status Agreements between Frontex and third countries”. Further, the draft states that “The existing action plans for the Western Balkans and the Central Mediterranean should be implemented, and action plans for the Western and Eastern Mediterranean should be presented by the Commission [by the end of February 2023],” and “emphasises that the monitoring of neighbouring countries’ visa policy should be strengthened”. The draft also notes that: “Swift action is needed to ensure effective returns from the European Union to countries of origin using as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visas as well as opportunities for legal migration”. The idea of mixing trade and migration has seen some pushback at EU level including by Sabine Weyand, the Commission’s top civil servant on trade and Bernd Lange, the chairman of the European Parliament’s trade committee, who stated: “On the GSP, you are linking trade preferences with taking people, taking refugees back to [their] countries,” adding that this didn’t serve the objectives of economic development and asking: “Shouldn’t we stick to trade policy? On 30 January, Frontex deputy director, Uku Särekanno told MEPs: “We are in a phase this year 2023, we will be spending around €100m for the return-related activities,” also noting: “So certainly for this year you will see a very significant increase of return operations and also hopefully the number of people who will be returned”. According to Särekanno the number of returns by the agency has increased from the 18,300 people returned in 2021.

Ahead of an informal meeting of EU interior ministers in Stockholm last week, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson stated: “I very much welcome that the Swedish presidency will focus on returns”. The Commissioner further stated: “And we do not need to wait for legislation on the pact to do this”, referring to ongoing negotiations on the European Pact on Migration and Asylum. Johansson pointed to “strong commitments from the ministers” in favor of using article 25a “to a greater extent than we have done so far” in reference to a clause in the EU visa code allowing the bloc to impose visa restrictions on countries with low rates of migrant returns as an incentive for cooperation. Swedish Migration Minister, Maria Malmer Stenergard, stated: “Should intensified political and diplomatic efforts not produce the desired results, member states call on the Commission to come back to the Council with proposals on visa restrictions”.  At member state level the eagerness to “tackle” arrivals also focuses on prevention. Reportedly, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and French president Emmanuel Macron agreed after a recent meeting that the “current asylum system is being abused” and that limiting the number of arrivals is the needed response to this alleged problem. Austria has proposed the allocation of two billion euros to improve fences on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. The idea of fences also has taken root in the parliament group, the European People’s Party (EPP). According to EPP head, Manfred Weber: “The EU states are sleepwalking into a new, major migration crisis,” and as a solution: “Fences must be conceivable”. Weber, noted that while: “Fences are always the last resort” there are needed: “wherever gangs of people smugglers successfully try to circumvent European law”. Weber exemplified such an alleged violation at EU’s eastern borders, the Mediterranean region and the border between Bulgaria and Greece and Turkey. However, Commissioner Johansson reiterated the position of Commission president von der Leyen pointing out that: “There are no funds for such a thing in the EU budget. Therefore, if we give money for walls and fences, there is no money left available for other things”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.