European Union interior ministers agreed on Thursday to move more quickly to deport illegal migrants, saying in a statement that the "return of illegally staying third-country nationals" is an "essential part" of the EU's migration policy.
Last year, more than half a million people remained in the EU illegally after they were denied asylum. Most of them were ordered to return to their country of origin. Only 40 percent of those who didn't comply were deported — a statistic that the EU is looking to boost.
The ministers were meeting in Luxembourg to discuss ways to stem the surge of migrants and expedite the return of unwanted asylum seekers. Among the measures discussed at the meeting were the drafting of a list of "safe countries of origin" — countries that migrants can safely be returned to if their asylum claim is denied — and plans to set up "hotspots" to help screen incoming migrants. Ministers also pledged to tighten border security and to ramp up the "detention capacity" of their countries to lock up migrants awaiting deportation.
"Those who do not need international protection will have to return to their countries of origin," said Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's minister of foreign affairs.
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"They are distinguishing between good and bad migrants," said François Gemenne, a research fellow at the French Institute of Political Sciences and at the University of Liège, in Belgium. "It's a perverse side effect of the debate surrounding the difference between refugees and migrants."
"Sadly, we've ended up creating a hierarchy for people fleeing their country," he added, noting that people fleeing oppression in their countries are generally considered more worthy of sympathy than those who are fleeing poverty and seeking better opportunities.
Gemenne labeled "absurd" a statement by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who said that the EU's capacity to welcome refugees "in need of protection" was based on deporting who are found to not meet the criteria for asylum.
"Welcoming those who are fleeing conflict shouldn't invalidate the hopes of others," Gemenne remarked. "Freedom of movement should be a fundamental right."
"Safe countries of origin"
The EU's plan to ramp up deportations is widely expected to target so-called "economic migrants" as opposed to those fleeing conflict and political oppression.
An EU official working on the migrant question explained that deportation concerned migrants "who do not qualify for international protection." The official also noted that the term "economic migrant" is not a legal classification.
"It has nothing to do with the migrant's country of origin," he said. "There are a number of reasons why you might flee your country. It could be because of poverty, because you are being persecuted on account of your sexual orientation, or because you are a political opponent." In the last two cases, the chances of being granted asylum in the EU are fairly high.
EU states are working toward a list of safe countries of origin.
"Europe is trying to expand this list to include the Balkans and perhaps even Turkey," said Gemenne.
If the list is intended to fast-track the deportation of those hailing from "safe" countries, such an index could potentially be in direct contradiction with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that immigration criteria should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The convention also states that international protection should be extended to any person "with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." In short, candidates for refugee status are screened according to the above criteria — not their country of origin.
Hotspots, detention, and deportation
The EU also plans to set up "hotspots" in Italy and Greece — the two countries that bear the brunt of migrant arrivals in Europe — to expedite the screening of migrants, and determine whether they qualify for international protection.
In its statement, the EU invited member states to reinforce their capacity to lock up migrants who failed to gain refugee status as a "last resort."
Europe also pledged to increase funding for Europe's border control agency Frontex, in exchange for it playing a more active role in return operations. Frontex organized only 3,000 deportations last year. On Monday, Frontex asked the EU to provide 775 more guards to help process migrants at the Greek and Italian borders.
Member states have earmarked more than 800 million euros ($908 million) for deportations — the same amount the EU spends on relocating migrants within Europe. On Friday, Italy sent 19 Eritrean migrants to Sweden as part of a plan to relocate some 160,000 migrants throughout the EU.
Using "a fine balance of incentives and pressure," the EU hopes to enhance cooperation between member states and "third countries" to facilitate the readmission and return of unwanted migrants.
Follow Pierre Longeray onTwitter: @PLongeray