Thematic and regional developments

Support our work: become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.

The summaries below concern documents produced or discussed by five working parties of the Council of the EU:

  • External Aspects of Migration Working Party (EMWP)
  • Strategic Committee on Frontiers, Immigration and Asylum (SCIFA)
  • Visa Working Party
  • Working Party on Frontiers
  • Working Party on Integration, Migration and Expulsion (IMEX)

All the documents summarised here, and more, are contained in our document archive, which also contains sections on the European Council and the Justice and Home Affairs Council. We will add documents produced or discussed by the Operational Coordination Mechanism for the External Dimension of Migration (MOCADEM) to coincide with the publication of the next bulletin at the end of June.


Border management

The external evaluation of the functioning of the Frontex Regulation has been a major topic of discussion within Council working parties since it was published at the beginning of February:

  • EMWP discussed aspects related to Frontex’s cooperation with third countries on 14 March;
  • SCIFA held a broader, high-level discussion on 20 February;
  • the Working Party on Frontiers held a discussion focusing on “situational awareness, the Standing Corps, and capability development” on 20 March; and
  • the Working Party on Integration, Migration and Expulsion discussed the aspects of the evaluation relating to deportations on 12 March.

The general consensus that emerges from the various working papers circulated in the Council – and from the evaluation itself – is that there is currently no need for changes to the law governing Frontex. Instead, significant efforts will go into implementing the current mandate, in particular those issues highlighted in the Commission’s action plan.

Frontex’s working arrangements with African states were discussed by the EMWP on 14 March. A discussion paper circulated by the Belgian Council Presidency notes that “the issue of national sovereignty and the reputation of Frontex are factors that could explained the reluctance of cooperating with the Agency.” Nevertheless, the paper says that negotiations on a working arrangement with Morocco were due to start in March, and are also planned with Jordan. There was a text agreed with the Nigerien authorities prior to the July coup, though cooperation has since been paused. The EU is also set to conclude a new Frontex status agreement with Serbia, discussed by the Working Party on Frontiers on 20 March.

A planned working arrangement with Mauritania has been superseded by the broader agreement signed with the country, though may still be in the works. However, the discussion paper on Frontex’s cooperation with African states notes with regard to Mauritania and Senegal: “Neither country showed great interest in hosting Frontex joint operations on their territories.”

An extensive overview of Frontex’s cooperation with non-EU states is provided in the agency’s report on the topic covering 2022, discussed by the Working Party on Frontiers in September. Amongst many other things, the report notes that:

  • the agency “organised at the Police Academy in Cairo a workshop on human rights at the borders”;
  • three new Risk Analysis Cells were set up in the framework of the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community (AFIC) in 2022, in Ivory Coast, Togo and Mauritania;
  • the Commission funded a “technical assistance project… to support the risk analysis capacities of AFIC participants,” of which there are now around 30 countries;
  • Kosovo and North Macedonia "introduced basic requirements for the future [EUROSUR] Coordination Centres in the region"; and
  • Frontex has developed “a comprehensive programme for capacity building” for third countries “in the field of Return, Readmission, and Reintegration.”

The topic of immigration liaison officers was discussed by IMEX on 8 February (focusing on their role in deportations and readmission, see below) and in EMWP on 14 March. A Presidency discussion paper for the latter meeting notes the “need to closely coordinate on the priority countries for their deployments to ensure adequate coverage of relevant migration areas in some third countries.”

The document contains a table setting out where the EU and its member states have liaison officers deployed. The paper notes that there have been attempts to improve coordination and cooperation between immigration liaison officers, but with little success, and sought the views of member states on how to deal with the situation.

Improving information sharing with third countries on migrant smuggling and trafficking is also discussed in the Commission’s recent “analytical document” on the proposed amendments to the Europol Regulation, which indicates that they could be used to provide information on countries in “the Middle East and North Africa, Sahel and West Africa,” with which Europol does not have formal agreements. The document is examined in more detail here.

The functioning of the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) was discussed by the Working Party on Frontiers on 23 November, where Frontex gave a presentation based on its bi-annual report to the Parliament and the Council. The presentation is heavily censored, with almost its entire content redacted. However, it does demonstrate the extensive range of information that is processed in the system:

  • analysis of information derived from large-scale information systems (such as the Schengen Information System, the Visa Information System, and Eurodac, a topic discussed in a Statewatch report published last year);
  • monitoring of designated third-country ports and coasts;
  • monitoring of areas in the maritime domain;
  • monitoring migratory flows towards and within the Union;
  • open source and social media intelligence;
  • monitoring of designated pre-frontier areas;
  • environmental assessment;
  • tracking of aircraft and vessels; and
  • monitoring of designated areas of air borders.

Deportation and readmission

The Visa Working Party discussed Article 25a of the Visa Code at each of its meetings since September. Article 25a allows the introduction of punitive measures against third countries that do not cooperate with EU deportations (for example, by refusing to issue travel documents for returnees).

IMEX discussed the same topic at each of its meeting since December. A paper on the agenda of the January meeting examines the results of threatening or employing visa sanctions against Iraq ("unprecedented"), Bangladesh ("a significant decrease in the quality of the cooperation"), The Gambia ("positive steps"), Senegal ("mixed") and Ethiopia (discussions ongoing). IMEX is also now to be the main forum for member states to discuss proposals under Article 25a, with the Visa Working Party taking a secondary role.

The Commission’s annual report on the implementation of Article 25a was also discussed by the EMWP on 8 September. Statewatch covered that report here.

The Visa Working Party has also been negotiating the Council’s position on a proposal to revise the EU visa suspension mechanism, which aims to make it easier to use, and to increase the number of grounds for which it can be invoked. While the Council’s intention was to complete negotiations by the end of the legislative term, the Parliament was slow to make progress with the file and so it will not be completed until later in the year at the earliest. This provided the opportunity for the Council to discuss various provisions in-depth, and to add new provisions to the text.

At the Visa Working Party meeting on 26 March, there was a discussion on “the future of visa policy,” in particular as visa policy relates to asylum policy. We have not yet obtained the discussion paper on this topic, but in March 2023 the Swedish Presidency proposed relating asylum applications to the visa suspension mechanism, as “citizens of visa-liberalised countries lodged a near-record number of asylum applications in 2022.”

Frontex’s role in deportations has been a frequent topic for the IMEX working party. On 19 September, Frontex gave a presentation offering a general update on its activities. The presentation offers a useful overview of numbers, but little detail. An update was presented by Frontex at the meeting on 20 December, where a discussion was also held on “innovative approaches to return.” This was based on a Spanish Council Presidency discussion paper outlining a pilot project to include “mixed voluntary and non-voluntary returns on the same charter flight,” which may become a standard part of Frontex’s return “portfolio”.

Frontex gave another update on its return activities at the IMEX meeting on 16 January, with one general presentation and one on its priorities for 2024 with regard to deportations. These are set out with regard to pre-return activities, the implementation of removal operations, post-return activities, and digitalisation. The overall objective is for Frontex to support and organise more deportation flights, to increase and improve its services to member states and cooperation with non-EU states, and to ensure the establishment and interconnection of digital case management systems across the EU. The latter will include a “return data warehouse pilot” and a “mobile app for reintegration (RAPP).”

The document also notes that Frontex aims “to become a [member state] partner in implementing operational activities (not just a supplier).” As previously reported by Statewatch, Frontex has already begun organising its own deportation flights, rather than just coordinating those organised by the member states, and as of November last year there had been flights to “Albania, Nigeria, Bangladesh and most recently, to Georgia and Albania.”

A separate Presidency paper discussed at the IMEX January meeting examines ways to “make the returns system more effective,” focusing on the "internal dimension [of returns]… in particular prioritising effective returns of third country nationals posing a security threat and advancing towards a European return decision."

It is likely that a legislative proposal for a European return decision, which would harmonise certain procedures and increase the mutual recognition of return decisions, will be forthcoming some time after September. A separate discussion paper with the same title was on the agenda of the SCIFA meeting in November, which Statewatch reported on here. A further paper on the topic was circulated for the IMEX meeting on 12 March, looking at harmonization; “creative solutions”; and horizonal issues, with some detail provided under each heading.

The March IMEX meeting also discussed a detailed Commission “non-paper” analysing the outcome of Schengen evaluations on return from 2020 to 2023. This outlines a number of barriers to increasing the number of deportations from the EU, with limited detention capacity and limitations on the duration of detention both described as “a significant obstacle for the majority” of member states. It covers a wide range of issues that are likely to be focus of EU efforts to step up deportations in the coming years, in particular in the context of implementing the Migration Pact, which allows accelerated procedures for examining asylum claims and processing deportation cases.

The role of immigration liaison officers in supporting deportation operations was discussed at the IMEX meeting on 8 February, backed by a presentation from Frontex and a discussion paper from the Belgian Council Presidency. The former looks at the work of EU Return Liaison Officers (EURLOs) while the latter explains the different types of national and EU liaison officer and notes: "To this day, around 500 national liaison officers are deployed around the world," mainly in Europe, Asia and Africa. It discusses where and how the work of liaison officers could better-coordinated in order to improve their role in deportations and readmission.

Reintegration has been a key discussion topic within IMEX. At the 19 September meeting, the International Organization for Migration was present for a discussion on its reintegration activities. The presentation is more heavily-censored than the one produced by Frontex for the same meeting; it notes that IOM’s return counselling services are: "Aimed at empowering individuals and increase their agency to make their own decision instead of trying to influence it." The Spanish organisation San Ezequiel Moreno Foundation was also present at the meeting to give a presentation on its reintegration work.

It is evident that Frontex’s role in reintegration – through its Joint Reintegration Services (JRS) – has expanded significantly in the last couple of years, and will continue to do so. General information on its work in this area is included in the presentations to the IMEX working party referred to above. A Spanish Council Presidency discussion paper for the September meeting notes that “it is essential to continue with the expansion of the Frontex JRS geographical scope, devoting special attention to the inclusion of those third countries that are currently readmitting a growing number of returnees.”

Migration partnerships

The EMWP has discussed relations with a number of countries since the start of the legislative term. Follow-up to the action plans on Niger and Nigeria was discussed on 8 September; Tunisia and Mauritania were on the agenda on 6 October. The discussion document on Mauritania for that meeting indicated that cooperation with the country should be stepped up, it was reported on by here. Since then, the EU and Mauritania signed an agreement covering a range of matters, including migration; a note that preceded the signing of that agreement is analysed in this issue of the bulletin. The migratory situation in Niger was discussed on 12 February. Follow-up to the EU action plans on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya was on the agenda on 14 March, though documents from this meeting have not yet been obtained.

On 6 October, the External Aspects of Migration Working Party discussed the conflict in Sudan and the impact “on the displacement situation in the region.” A presentation outlined the causes of the conflict, the current situation, and the situation for displaced people and refugees. Noting the EU’s support for projects intended to support displaced persons in Sudan and neighbouring states, the document also the need to monitor ““whether the Sudanese hosted in neighbouring countries are considering engaging in secondary movement or the newly displaced within Sudan will also decide to flee to neighbouring countries.”

Budgets and funding

At its meeting on 28 November, the External Aspects of Migration Working Party discussed the Commission’s Annual Report on the implementation of the European Union's External Action Instruments in 2022, which mainly covers the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) budget and the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance III (IPA III). The report provides an overview of spending and on the number of migration-related projects in different regions, but no substantive detail on the content of those projects. The report’s two annexes run to a total over 400 pages in length.

One key figure contained in the reports concerns the amount of the NDICI budget spent on migration-related projects, which for the 2021-22 period was 13.6% of the total. This so far exceeds by one-third the overall aim of 10% for the 2021-27 period, which should amount to €3.364 billion. It also appears that the EU’s Global Gateway initiative – designed to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative – is being used to implement migration-related projects, so far in 13 countries in Africa.

In the period covered by the report, €231.9 million from the IPA III budget was spent, as well as an “additional regional programme” worth €7m to help support the implementation of Frontex’s status agreements with countries in the Western Balkans. The report notes that a new programme “to fight the smuggling of migrants” worth €30 million was adopted at the end of 2022, but it is unclear if this contributes to the €231.9 million total for 2022. The report notes the EU’s support for the Lipa detention centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania’s acquisition of “modern equipment, renewal of maritime fleets” and the “construction of two radar stations,” and support for North Macedonia to “help upgrade national technological and institutional capacities to identify, register, screen and treat the information on migrants and refugees in line with EU and international standards.”

The question of funding externalisation was raised explicitly by the Spanish Council Presidency, and a discussion paper for the SCIFA meeting in November notes the need for increased funds for externalisation "to maintain our credibility vis-à-vis our partner countries of origin and transit". It says that the numerous different budgets available for externalisation make monitoring and analysis difficult, and calls for investment in the Spanish Presidency's proposed "preventive model", reported on previously by Statewatch.

Our work is only possible with your support.
Become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.


Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error