(new: with letter from der Leyens)

    STOCKHOLM (dpa-AFX) – The European Union is making a new attempt to ensure that more foreigners who are required to leave the country are deported to their home country. “We have a very low return rate and I see that we can make significant progress here,” EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson said at a meeting with EU interior ministers in Stockholm on Thursday.

    What is disputed, however, is how much pressure the EU should exert on countries of origin with which cooperation is difficult and on the other hand how much incentives for cooperation should be created. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) spoke out against using the EU visa policy offensively as a means of pressure. However, Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard said after the meeting that the EU states agreed that this was an important instrument.

    The EU has been trying for years to deport more foreigners without a right to stay, but is making little progress. In 2021, the European Court of Auditors found the existing system to be highly inefficient and “doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do: instead of deterring it, it encourages illegal migration.”

    In figures it looks like this: In 2019, the proportion of people who were obliged to leave the EU and who actually left the EU was 29 percent. In 2021 it was only 21 percent – probably also due to the pandemic. The EU Commission had announced a target of around 70 percent in 2018. The traffic light coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP also announced a “repatriation offensive” in the coalition agreement.

    From the point of view of many EU countries, more returns would also be important because the asylum systems in many countries are completely overburdened. The number of asylum applications rose last year by almost 50 percent to 924,000. Around 60 percent of the applicants have no right to international protection and the reception capacities are overloaded, said EU Interior Commissioner Johansson. In addition, there are four million war refugees from Ukraine who do not have to apply for asylum in the EU.

    The Swedish Presidency sees visa policy as a key tool. Article 25a of the Visa Code “could be one of the most important instruments to improve cooperation with third countries in the area of ​​return and readmission,” according to a paper on the meeting. This could mean, for example, that the deadline for processing visa applications from certain countries is extended or fees are increased. Countries with which cooperation is difficult include Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

    There can be problems with repatriation, for example, if the home countries deliberately do not issue identity documents for their citizens because they do not want to take people back. It can also happen that third countries do not recognize documents issued by EU countries. In such cases, repatriation is not possible because airlines will not take the migrants with them. Because many asylum seekers know this, they dispose of or hide their identity documents before they apply, thus making deportations more difficult.

    Johansson also emphasized that the Visa lever works. The EU must act as one to put pressure on third countries. In addition, the Frontex border protection force should be used more for deportation flights. There are other means of pressure against third countries in trade policy and development aid.

    In fact, the EU Commission has so far only proposed applying the visa lever for four countries: Bangladesh, Iraq, Gambia and Senegal. The EU states, in turn, only accepted the proposal for Gambia. The EU Commission says that the purpose of Article 25a is not to apply it – but above all to threaten it. Cooperation with Bangladesh has already improved. Johansson announced on Thursday that he would make further proposals under the mechanism.

    Faeser, on the other hand, was skeptical. “I’m reluctant to do that. I believe that the route via migration agreements is the better one.” Such agreements should combine facilitation of legal migration with cooperation on readmission. Germany recently reached an agreement with India on this. More are to follow. Faeser wants to travel to North Africa with her French colleague Gérald Darmanin in the spring.

    So far, the SPD politician has made little progress in the field of repatriations. In 2022, 12,945 people were deported from Germany. In 2019 there were still more than 22,000. The topic is also difficult for Faeser because it is largely the responsibility of the federal states.

    However, the number of countries of origin to which deportations are currently impossible or only possible to a very limited extent due to massive human rights violations or for other reasons has also increased. In Afghanistan, for example, the militant Islamist Taliban are in charge again. Even Iran, where protesters are currently being executed, is not a country to which people are being sent back.

    Faeser will soon share political responsibility for Germany making progress on the issue of deportations with the new special representative for migration issues, Joachim Stamp (FDP). The former NRW Integration Minister will take office on February 1st.

    Returns are not the only problem in the EU’s asylum and migration policy. The member states have been arguing bitterly for years about the distribution of refugees. Because there is no progress here, the focus is now primarily on border protection. In this context, Austria’s Minister of the Interior, Gerhard Karner, again called for the Commission to finance border fences. So far, the EU Commission had rejected this on principle. Now, however, Johansson has shown a slight concede, and she did not express any rejection in principle, even when asked. Instead, the Swede said: “I’m a very pragmatic person.”

    The discussion on this should be continued at the special EU summit in February. On Thursday evening, with a view to this summit, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen presented her ideas in a letter to the EU heads of state and government on how short-term successes in migration policy could be achieved. She also emphasized, among other things, the protection of the external borders, faster returns and a complete registration of migrants who reach the EU./abc/DP/nas