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New 'Return Handook' to assist Member States in bypassing human rights safeguards in migrant removals
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The Commission has published a new version of the 'Return Handbook', that is supposed to be used by national authorities to implement the EU Returns Directive and has been revised in order to implement a host of recommendations on "making returns more effective".

The recommendations, published in March this year by the European Commission, were condemned by over 90 civil society groups as bypassing human rights safeguards set out in EU law and "actively pushing Member States to lower the bar".

The Return Handbook (pdf) was originally established by a Commission Recommendation in October 2015 (pdf) but in the haste to step up the number of migrants removed from the EU a Renewed Action Plan on a more effective return policy (pdf) was issued by the Commission in March 2017, alongside a Recommendation on making returns more effective when implementing the Directive 2008/115/EC (the Returns Directive).

At 91 pages long, the new Return Handbook will require a close examination to see where and how it differs from its predecessor - but the main purpose of any revisions is clear. Amongst other things, the March 2017 Recommendation that led to its revision called for Member States to:

  • "ensure that return decisions have unlimited duration";
  • implement accelerated asylum procedures;
  • extend detention periods to the maximum of 18 months allowed under the Return Directive;
  • "bring detention capacity in line with actual needs"; and
  • ensure that national legislation does not "preclude... the possibility to place minors in detention."

In response, some 90 civil society organisations condemned the Recommendation (pdf):

"Bowing down to political pressure to be “tough” on irregular migration, the European Commission has turned its back on the full implementation of human rights safeguards in its Returns’ Directive and is actively pushing member states to lower the bar.

The organisations, of whom Statewatch was one, highlighted that:

The Commission has set out to dismantle the key tenets of the EU Returns' Directive by encouraging Member States to interpret the directive in a way that would allow for the lowest possible safeguards ot be applied... The Commission has also stated that it stands ready to revise the Returns' Directive if it transpires that the safeguards presented in the directive will stand in the way of increasing return rates."

The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, said that the recommendations were "likely to lead to human rights violations without furthering other goals, such as facilitating the processing of asylum claims or promoting dignified returns."

The new Return Handbook was published by the Commission alongside a raft of other proposals, recommendations and communications on controlling the Schengen area, migration and asylum.

Drafting process

The revised Handbook was drawn up by national and EU officials in the Commission's 'Contact Group - Return Directive' over a period of three meetings, the last of which was in July.

The minutes of that meeting, as well as those of prevous meetings of the group, give some insight into the drafting process for the revised Handbook.

For example, at the July meeting the Contact Group discussed including "the definition of 'stateless person'," that "it was agreed not to include an additional section on good practices concerning apprehension of irregular migrants because not enough information had been provided," and:

"to introduce small editorial change to the paragraph related to the possibility to start preparing the removal process during the period for voluntary departure, as the Directive does not prevent this."

The comments in the minutes on section 10 of the Handbook, which concern unaccompanied minors, note:

"the revised text was agreed, with editorial changes referring to adolescents "below the age of 18" and distinguishing between legally binding obligations to be respected (Article 20 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) and good practices to be looked at."

Next steps in stepping up returns

The minutes of the July meeting include the following:

"Participants exchanged ideas on possible future topics of discussion at the Contact Group.

The following topics were mentioned: return of stateless persons; mutual recognition and alternatives to mutual recognition; link between asylum and return procedures; alternatives to detention and their cost-effectiveness; minimum requirements for individual return decisions; harmonisation of restrictive measures and procedures; sharing facilities between Member States; practical arrangements for the transfer of irregular migrants from a Member State to another in order to go to the consular/diplomatic authority of the country of origin (the last two topics were considered more suitable for a discussion at the EMN - REG Group)."

With the Return Handbook finished, it seems that the EU and the Member States are not short of ideas on what else they could do to step up the return of migrants from the EU. What cost to human rights subsequent measures will have remains to be seen.

Documentation: minutes of the 'Contact Group - Return Directive' (pdfs)

Background and further reading

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