The EESC says it fears that, without proper guarantees and strong reintegration measures in countries of origin, voluntary returns of migrants could result in a violation of their fundamental and human rights.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomed the Commission's efforts to harmonise the measures regulating voluntary return of migrants and their reintegration into their country of origin, but said it doubted the feasibility of some of the proposals put forward and expressed concern that voluntary returns could turn into expulsions of migrants from the EU.
The EESC stressed that the majority of voluntary returns did not work properly because the countries of origin were not sufficiently involved and because migrants in irregular situation were often reluctant to go back.
The EESC's standpoint was presented in the opinion Voluntary return and reintegration strategy, adopted at its September plenary session, in which the Committee took a closer look at the strategy that is one of the key objectives of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, unveiled by the Commission in September 2020.
Voluntary return refers to the mechanism which enables irregular migrants in the EU to return to their countries of origin. It allows migrants to decide to go back voluntarily and makes their return easier, enabling better reintegration into the host society than forced return procedures.
The strategy aims to improve coordination and solidarity between Member States, with a view to establishing a shared approach to developing and implementing the assisted voluntary return and reintegration programmes. It also provides for better cooperation with third countries to help reintegrate returning migrants.
We welcome the plan, but there are two fundamental issues with failed returns: sometimes the countries of origin do not facilitate them and sometimes returning migrants do not want to go back after a difficult journey to the EU, so they will try to get back to the EU again, said the opinion's rapporteur, José Antonio Moreno Díaz.
He said the EESC was reiterating its previous criticism of the Pact, which almost exclusively focused on tackling irregular situations at the border or through voluntary and forced returns, at the same time failing to offer a comprehensive approach to managing migration by promoting legal and safe mobility. The EESC perceives this as a strategic weakness of the EU's migration and asylum policy.
We have to manage irregularity before it occurs. This means we have to ensure safe and effective ways of entering the EU. If we can do that, we could see a reduction in irregular arrivals, Mr Moreno Díaz said.
The current piecemeal approach was therefore fraught with flaws.
Encouraging voluntary returns should go hand in hand with reintegrating migrants into their country of origin and there should be a plethora of measures in place supporting them during the reintegration process.
However, the current incentives offered to countries of origin may actually discourage them from trying to reduce the flows of migrants as these incentives are offered via programmes based on the existence of persons in irregular situations.
The EESC said it was particularly concerned about the Pact's stated objective of increasing swift voluntary returns from the EU's external borders.
Are these expedited returns really voluntary or are they expulsions? We are worried that voluntary return may become a euphemism for expulsions or for financial compensation paid to the destination countries that receive returnees, without ever taking consideration of their wishes, and even more worryingly, of their rights. A voluntary return in order to avoid forced expulsion cannot be considered as an act of one's own accord, Mr Moreno Díaz stressed.
The EESC also expressed concern over the future role of Frontex, especially given the latest European Parliament report on alleged violations of rights committed by the agency. In this respect, the Committee asks for Frontex's role and activities to be supervised, so as to ensure that they are carried out with respect for human rights.
The EESC reiterated its doubts over sponsored returns, as the incentives for Member States to participate in this mechanism were unclear and it continued to be based on voluntary solidarity.
In the EESC's view, the funding for sustainable reintegration programmes should be increased. It is also very important to improve data collection as current information about the number of migrants who have voluntarily returned and the success of their reintegration remains sketchy.
According to the opinion, it is essential that cooperation with third countries on any aspect be based on their respect of international public law, as well as their protection of human rights and the fundamental freedoms.
If the EU is to fully depend on the will of third countries to ensure the effectiveness of voluntary returns, the credibility and coherence of European migration policy could be seriously undermined, the EESC concluded.