On the 27th of April 2021, the European Commission presented its first strategy on voluntary return and reintegration for the migrants as a key step forward in the implementation of its New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The IOM defines Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) as an ‘indispensable part of a comprehensive approach to migration management aiming at orderly and humane return and reintegration of migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and wish to return voluntarily to their countries of origin.’ In simple terms, voluntary return and reintegration of migrants mark a crucial element for the EU’s migration strategies.
Initially, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum from 2020 offers comprehensive and integrated approaches to align all related policy strands together, to build an effective, long-term, and sustainable migration and asylum system in Europe. In essence, the Pact focuses on three overarching pillars:
(a) Improving cooperation with international partners in the area of migration management;
(b) Strengthening the EU’s external borders by facilitating effective identification mechanisms and simplifying the asylum process;
(c) Establishing a more effective mechanism for solidarity both within and outside EU borders.
One primary strategy of the EU is the establishment of an efficient system for returns. The current policy on return, the Return Directive, is heavily outdated, rendering concurrent efforts largely ineffective while often serving as an incentive for irregular migration. Moreover, up until today, the EU continues to struggle from a low voluntary returns rate, which can be traced back to various factors such as disagreements between the Member States, insufficient cooperation with non-EU countries, as well insufficient resources.
Overall, these challenges complicate the EU’s efforts to manage migration. Thus, this policy document potentially offers a fresh approach to resolve the broader efforts to establish a common EU system for returns. As commented on by the Migration Policy Institute, it also covers a rare area of relative consensus between the EU Member States and that even though interests of the Member States will likely remain asymmetrical, the idea of an improved return system should fall onto a shared and fruitful ground.
Furthermore, to realize the ambitions set out by the document, the European Commission acknowledges that the situation of migrants upon return marks a critical indicator for the success of the strategy, rather than simply increasing the numbers on return rates. Delivering quality reintegration assistance while recognizing the complex dimensions at play, the Commission aims to deliver a humane, effective, and sustainable return system for migrants. As Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: ‘Returns are more effective when they are voluntary and accompanied by genuine reintegration options for returnees and this Strategy will develop a more uniform and coordinated approach among the Member States to unlock their full potential.’ Thus, the Commission recognizes the important role of origin countries’ in reintegrating returnees. This highlights another crucial step for the strategy as ‘many AVRR programs have long operated without closely involving governments, civil society, and other stakeholders in origin countries.’
To realize this ambitious strategy, the European Commission aims to enhance the mandate of Frontex, Europe’s Border, and Coast Guard, which already supports the Member States in stages of the voluntary return and reintegration process. Additionally, the appointment of a Return Coordinator and High-Level Network for Return will provide technical support to the Member States and establish coherence and consistency of the Member States’ actions on voluntary return and reintegration. This way forward does not come without the criticism of various actors. Concurrently, Frontex is under investigation by the European Parliament; OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office; and the European Ombudsman for reports and incidents about alleged pushbacks and human rights violations. However, the agency has been tasked with supporting return operations for years. Thus, a new return mandate will not only extend the powers of the Warsaw-based Agency but hopefully allow for greater European coordination in migration management.
Overall, the new strategy for return offers a very promising step forward. By recognizing the need to find a balance between human- and security-centric balance in the European migration management system, I believe that this strategy could allow for meaningful migration partnerships shortly. However, doubts remain over the realization and the reaction by the Member States towards this new strategy.