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‘Limit migrants’ responsibility for voluntary return to their country of origin’

The EU Return Directive gives migrants residing unlawfully in the European Union the option to leave voluntarily. This is to avoid detention and forced expulsion. But the directive is too vague and can lead to unfair procedures and even human rights violations, PhD candidate Christian Mommers concludes.

What is the voluntary return period?

‘In the Netherlands this is usually four weeks. This can be different in other EU member states, but according to the European rules the voluntary return period must at any rate be between seven and 30 days, unless there are reasons for exceptions. My dissertation shows that member states  invoke exceptions too often, which means the right to a voluntary return period becomes a paper tiger. Of the people who do return, around half are forcibly deported and the other half leave voluntarily.’ 

According to the EU border agency Frontex, in the whole EU more than 300,000 rejected asylum seekers and other migrants received a return decision in 2020. This is formal notice to leave under the EU Return Directive and the start of the procedure that the dissertation is about. 

‘This sometimes results in violations of human rights, such being wrongly detained or ending up on the street without any facilities.’

Why is it important for the directive to be clearer?

‘This whole process, from the perspective of the EU member states, is somewhat of a black box and it’s crucial that it becomes clearer what can and cannot be expected of foreign citizens. They should not be unfairly blamed for the failure of voluntary return. This sometimes results in human rights violations: being wrongly detained, ending up on the street without any facilities or being exposed to safety risks in the land of origin.’

What are the main obstacles to voluntary return?

‘Migrants don’t have the necessary evidence, for instance, such as identity documents or other papers that show that they come from a certain country. They may not want to return at all and therefore make no effort to do so. Or they deliberately share incorrect personal details with the embassy, which then cannot issue any documents. It can also be due to the countries of origin preferring not to take back their own nationals: for instance out of economic interest because the migrants send money home or because the migrants are political opponents of the government there.’ 

What are your main findings?

‘Provide a better definition of migrants’ responsibilities and be more explicit about what they have to do. Migrants are put in an impossible position if, for example, member states ignore corruption or other unreasonable demands by the country of origin, such as paying bribes, offering excuses for bringing the country of origin into “disrepute” or making false statements about really wanting to return. Member states tend to ignore certain safety risks for the individual because returning is “their responsibility”. The voluntary return period should also be long enough to give migrants a realistic chance of leaving, and the possibility of not giving a return period should be defined in a clearer, more limited way.’

Text: Linda van Putten

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