Back to the future? Questioning EU’s renewed approach to returns and readmission

By Iole Fontana, the University of Catania

While the involvement of countries of origin and transit in the management of migratory flows is nothing new for EU migration policies, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum relaunches the cooperation with third countries as an old but gold element to a fresh start. In a quest for reinforced cooperation with external partners, returns and readmission are identified as aspects of crucial relevance to the proper functioning of migration and asylum policy inside the EU, building on the idea that: ‘EU migration rules can be credible only if those who do not have the right to stay in the EU are effectively returned’.

In February 2021, the European Commission published a new Communication on ‘Enhancing cooperation on return and readmission as part of a fair, effective and comprehensive EU migration policy’. The document, which outlines the first assessment on the state of readmission cooperation with third countries, identifies obstacles and challenges, as well as potential incentives to step up partners’ engagement.

To address the low return rate from the EU, as well as the high number of asylum applications from countries of origin for which EU Member States have low recognition rates, the New Pact proposes integrated policymaking with a view to bringing together asylum and returns.

The key role of countries of origin: the real seam in a seamless border procedure

The ratio is to establish a seamless link between all the stages of the migration process – arrival, asylum, potential return – and thereby channeling migrants with no protection needs into a quick return procedure directly from the external border.

While imagined to be seamless, this border procedure in fact transforms countries of origin into a seam: they stand as the real stitching line where (rejected) asylum, the common EU return system, and the new return sponsorships are held together. This does not only increase pressure on the EU to secure third countries’ commitment but is likely to expand the grey realm of informal cooperation beyond legal arrangements.

The February Communication states that the EU is ready to mobilize incentives in terms of visa facilitation as well as financial instruments, in a bid to promote third countries’ engagement on readmission through the ‘back door’ of functional cooperation. And if ‘a partner is not cooperating sufficiently’ (p. 7), restrictions will apply.

This strategy re-proposes three old dilemmas. The first is the real balance between negative and positive conditionality. The second is the incentives’ credibility: are the Member States ready to live up to visa pledges? The third is the partnerships’ real fairness and capacity to go beyond negotiations skewed towards the fight against irregular migration.

The European Commission proposes to assess partners’ degree of cooperation by including criteria such as their scale of flow and the past number of irregular arrivals to the EU. Yet, this is just another benchmark, strategically disguised as a question about how good a country is at containing mobility to Europe either through prevention or readmission. 

The two missing Rs: reintegration and regularisation

The renewed strategy disproportionally focuses on Readmission and Return, overlooking two other crucial ‘Rs’: Reintegration and Regularisation.

The first calls for a redefinition of the very notion of effectiveness. This means going beyond mere statistics on effective returns to including a human dimension with adequate monitoring on what happens after return, or the extent to which returnees are effectively supported.

The second calls for the regularisation of concrete channels of labour mobility. The ‘Talent Partnerships’ proposed by the New Pact leave unsolved questions on legal migration opportunities for unskilled migrants. Moreover, they do not help integrate the EU’s current triple track approach for governing migration and asylum

The dark side of the moon: migrants’ agency and vulnerability

Mobility agency and vulnerability continue to be the dark side of the external dimension of EU migration policies. Renewed cooperation on readmission rests on the policy assumption that effective returns deter irregular arrivals, thwart mobility demands and send a clear signal to smugglers.

Yet, reliance on these assumptions overshadows migrants’ projects, motivations, and capacity to contest practices of containment. For a real ‘fresh start’, any partnership with third countries should not be limited to intergovernmental negotiations but involve a broader dialogue with all relevant actors.  

Vulnerability is also at stake. In the EU, the integration of asylum and return at the external border entails the risk of producing more Morias across Europe, in a continuum from dangerous journeys across the sea to insecure permanence at the border.

In cooperation with partners, the notion of vulnerability should be contested and expanded beyond ‘humane’ return processes, including new protection needs – such as those arising from Reintegration and Regularisation of legal pathways.

Back to the future?

EU’s renewed approach to enhance external cooperation on return and readmission re-produces old discourses. The UN Global Compact on Migration offers potential solutions in terms of enhancing availability and flexibility of regular mobility channels, as well as strengthening ‘the human dimension inherent to the migration experience itself’.

The EU’s strategy of external cooperation needs to correct two structural imbalances: an approach too skewed towards state-centric positions and the need to offset Returns and Readmission with the other two Rs – Reintegration and Regularisation.

If this is not the case, traditional externalisation dilemmas are set to travel back to the future and be re-proposed over time, from one partner to the other, from one new Pact to the next.

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