Interior ministry says EU migrant return plan in line with its vision

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Ministry of the Interior coat of arms. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The ministry of the Interior says proposed European Union plans on the return of illegal migrants to member states to their countries of origin in broadly in line with Estonia's views. The plan, drawn up by the European Commission and sent to member states for dissection, is based on the concept of voluntary, rather than forced, return, though the EU's external border control agency Frontex will be involved, if the plan comes to light.

Veiko Kommusaar, Undersecretary for Internal Security, Law Enforcement and Migration Policy at the ministry, told ERR Wednesday that the strategy addresses issues he says that Estonia has been talking about for several years.

Kommussaar said: "The European Commission's new strategy … sets out measures to encourage voluntary return. Estonia has been saying for years that return must be supported and encouraged."

"Better coordination at the EU level is also very important for organizing returns. The increased role of Frontex in supporting returns and the creation of a coordinator position has been supported by the Ministry of the Interior in the past," Kommusaar added, noting that the initiative is not a legislative one from the European Parliament, but rather and action plan emanating from the European Commission.

Kommusaar expressed praise for the commission's attempts to provide financial resources for a voluntary return program, calling the discussions only a beginning of the strategy.

The European Parliamentary Research Service estimates that voluntary return costs €560 per individual, compared with over €3,400 per person in the case of a forced return.

Discussions on migrant redistribution reached their peak during the migrant crisis of 2015-2016. Two centers, at Vägeva, Jõgeva County, and at Vao, Lääne-Viru County, were set up to host arrivals, including asylum seekers, from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Nigeria, Albania and Georgia.

As of last October, 28 people were staying at both the centers, less than half the figure from a year earlier. 337 people were settled across Estonia from 2015 as a result of the EU's migrant redistribution plan. Estonia's own third-country migration quota has been set at 1,315 for 2021.

Strategy focused on those without legal right of stay

The strategy as the European Commission has unveiled it would boost EU border protection agency Frontex's powers to be involved in all stages of a voluntary return, including pre-return counseling, post-arrival support and monitoring the effectiveness of reintegration assistance. 

The program focuses on migrants who have arrived in the EU without a legal basis.

Already-existing voluntary return programs have seen little take-up so far, the European Commission says, due to holes within the asylum and migration procedures, limited data and other issues.

Independent, Brussels-based portal EU Observer meanwhile wrote Wednesday that fewer than 30 percent of people who arrived in the EU without a legal basis are likely to return to their countries of origin voluntarily.

The European Commission's own press service says the strategy is based on several pillars, including strengthening the legal and operational framework for voluntary returns from Europe as well as the quality of such services, and boosting cooperation with partner states. These include countries who have signed up to the EU-International Organization for Migration Joint Initiative in Africa, and also Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Part of broader EU strategy

The strategy is also part of the approach set out in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the commission says.

A list of countries the EU has concluded readmission agreements with, which include the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the South Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is here.

However, some key EU lawmakers have cast doubt on the strategy as it stands, EU Observer reports, including German MEP Birgit Sippel (SPD/PES), who is the lead MEP on the commission's screening regulation, and Dutch MEP Tineke Strik (GroenLinks/European Greens).

Sippel has called the commission's new independent monitoring mechanism a "fig leaf", while Strik said last month that several EU member states opposed the strategy and that deadlock may be coming on the issue.

The EU/Schengen Zone is also considering lifting visa-free travel agreements with any third countries who refuse to take back their nationals, according to EU Observer.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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