European governments are increasingly focused on detaining irregular migrants and returning them to their home countries. But PICUM, a Brussels-based NGO, says they are illegal measures that won’t deter asylum seekers. Marion MacGregor reports
European countries have been stepping up efforts to stop asylum seekers from entering or remaining in the territory.
The UK government is continuing to push ahead with its Illegal Migration Bill, which would make it a crime to cross the English Channel by boat and would put everyone arriving via that route in detention. The aim is to stop people from attempting the dangerous journey, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, repeated this week, mainly by creating a ‘deterrent effect’.
Italy has taken steps to make it harder for migrants to reach its shores, and to stay there. A law passed last week – the so-called Cutro Decree, named after the February 26 migrant shipwreck – has abolished a residence permit called ‘special protection’ which enabled migrants who did not qualify for asylum in Italy to remain legally in the country, and to convert their stay to a work permit.
“Special protection creates attractive conditions for immigration and we will eliminate it,” said Nicola Molteni, undersecretary at Italy’s interior ministry.
Germany, which received over 101,000 applications in the first four months of this year and which hosts the most asylum-seekers in Europe, has also announced changes this week that would allow more people to be deported, more quickly.
The proposals, announced after a meeting between the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the 16 state leaders, would also mean people due to be removed from Germany could now be detained for four weeks, instead of 10 days.
No evidence for deterrence claim
The measures being taken are in line with the European Union’s overall goal of having an efficient system that will enable more migrants to be sent back to their countries of origin, and which is meant to deter people from coming to Europe.
But not everyone agrees with this approach. According to Marta Gionco from PICUM, a network of migrants rights’ NGOs, there is no evidence to support the claim that returning more migrants to their home countries will deter others from attempting irregular journeys.
“People are very aware of the risks that they may face coming to Europe and they still decide to do so, for many reasons,” Gionco told InfoMigrants.
“Even if it had a deterrent effect, we have to consider the human rights implications – we would be trying to deter people from exercising their rights, from trying to come to Europe for protection for many reasons,” she added.
Gionco is concerned that the deterrence argument is being used to justify increasingly harmful measures, including violating human rights. “We see that there is no limit to how far you can go with the deterrence argument.”
Appeal by videoconference
As part of the effort to speed up returns, the EU also aims to make it harder for migrants to appeal against a deportation decision.
In March, 2023 the European Commission recommended to member states that in order to ensure that a rejection was “swiftly followed up” with return procedures, asylum seekers could be deported while the court was still assessing their appeal, and the appeal could be conducted from the third country, thousands of kilometers from Europe, using videoconferencing.
“This is extremely dangerous,” Gionco said. “Are we talking about someone deported to Syria, someone deported to Sudan, to Libya, to appeal against the decision on Skype?
It’s completely absurd to think that people will be able to exercise the right to appeal from another country. And what will happen if the courts then decide that they were right? Will they then be relocated to Europe?”
There is no limit to how far you can go with the deterrence argument
More detention centers
While trying to facilitate faster returns, some EU countries are also building more detention facilities where they can hold people before deporting them. The European Commission recently proposed building enough closed centers to host everyone who has a return order in the EU.
Many of the member states, like Germany, are also extending detention periods.
“The idea is because you can detain them for longer you will have more time to organize their return,” an incorrect assumption, said Gionco.
“Detaining people for longer does not make it easier to return them. Usually people return in the first few weeks, or if they don’t, it means that it’s complicated to return them, because the authorities are not collaborating, or they don’t have documents, or because it’s difficult to identify them. So there is absolutely no grounds to build new detention facilities.”
Are we talking about someone deported to Syria, to Sudan, to Libya, to appeal against the decision on Skype?
Alternatives to deportation
While the EU is “fixated on returns,” according to Gionco, some countries are taking different approaches. Especially at the local level, many of these are proving to be successful.
“Some local authorities are actually trying to implement programs which offer accommodation for undocumented people, which support them and help them to explore whether and how they can regularize their position. This is happening in the Netherlands and Belgium. Municipalities are realizing that we need to go in a different direction.”
States too have taken more positive steps, says Gionco, pointing to Germany’s Opportunity Right of Residency Law, passed in 2022, which will make it easier for people with a suspended deportation order (Duldung) to regularize their position. Already in Ireland and Spain, many undocumented migrants have been granted legal status, while Belgium and Germany have committed to ending child detention.
“I think the solution is focusing on these good measures and expanding them and scaling them up, rather than giving up or giving in to this extreme right-wing narrative based on limiting access to the territory, based on fear and on stigmatization,” said Gionco. In the end, she believes, this is not only harmful, but also ineffective.