EU ministers to ramp up migrant return policies

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Proposals to create a system that would keep out illegal migrants who do not qualify for asylum in Europe – a crucial counterpart to the European Union’s efforts to accommodate genuine refugees – were the main focus as EU interior ministers met Thursday.

The European Union is experiencing its largest influx of migrants and asylum seekers since World War II. Many are from war-torn countries such as Syria and have a right to international protection. But others are seen as simply fleeing hardship and searching for a better life.

“We have to tell [economic migrants] that they cannot stay with us, so that we can really help those who really need our protection from war and persecution,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the European Parliament on Wednesday.

The return of irregular migrants is one of several measures aimed at stemming the flow of people into Europe as the continent has struggled to find a common response to the migration crisis.

“Increased return rates should act as a deterrent to irregular migration,” read a draft statement, seen by dpa, being prepared for Thursday’s talks.

“We need to crack down on those who are abusing our asylum system,” said British Home Secretary Theresa May. “On returns, we need to see Europe upping its game.”

In 2013, less than 40 per cent of migrants destined for repatriation were actually sent home, according to the European Commission.

Return agreements already exist – including direct EU arrangements with 17 countries and a blanket accord with African, Caribbean and Pacific states – but need to be better implemented, according to officials.

The ministers are expected to advocate a “fine balance of incentives and pressure,” so third countries take back their nationals, linking cooperation on this issue to “benefits in all policy areas,” their draft statement says.

Other measures include allocating more financial resources, greater information-sharing and strengthening the role of the EU border agency, Frontex, in return operations.

But one delicate issue is the use of detention to prevent migrants from disappearing before they can be returned home.

“Some member states are more reluctant to [detain migrants] than others,” one EU diplomat said Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Wednesday urged the EU “to avoid the ugly spectre of arbitrary or prolonged detention of people who are not criminals.”

The ministers are also due to discuss ways of strengthening controls at the EU’s external borders, including a plan to boost Frontex staffing to 10 times its current numbers.

“A Europe without secured external borders will soon be a Europe full of internal border checks – we don’t want that,” warned German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

Later Thursday, EU foreign ministers will join the Luxembourg talks for a high-level conference with all countries on the migration route leading from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon through the Western Balkans into the EU.

Ministers may also touch on plans for an EU safe list of countries whose nationals are unlikely to qualify for asylum. No decision is expected on this, however.

The list is expected to include all Western Balkan states. The addition of EU membership candidate Turkey is more controversial, due to criticism of the country’s record on human rights and the rule of law.

One in five Turkish asylum claims was successful across the EU in 2014, according to the bloc’s statistics agency Eurostat.

De Maiziere came out in support of adding Turkey to the safe list, without specifying whether he was speaking for the government as a whole. Diplomats in Brussels say that Germany is opposing the move.

“I personally would be in favour,” the minister told dpa Wednesday. “If you want something from Turkey, then that only works if you approach one another.”

Turkey has taken in 2.2 million Syrians and is a major transit route to Western Europe, giving Ankara a key role in helping to stem the flow of migrants.

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