EU's Return Policy
All told, anywhere from two to eight million people live in the EU illegally: they come to study and then never leave, have their asylum applications rejected, overstay tourist visas or work in EU countries.
The EU wants to harmonize how member states go about removing people from the bloc. The European Return Fund, set to start in 2008, will provide 676 million euros ($907 million) to help countries share the burden of returning illegal immigrants to their home countries.
A common directive to guide the fund is still needed, but the European Commission is hopeful it will be in place by the end of the year.
For humanitarian and practical reasons, the EU would rather have people leave the bloc voluntarily. Forcing an illegal person to leave is a last resort, a spokesman for the European Commission said.
Brice Hortefeux, the head of France's new ministry of immigration and national identity, recently suggested encouraging people to return home voluntarily by offering an immigrant family of four 6,000 euros.
"We must increase this measure to help voluntary returns," said Hortefeux, an ally of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I am very clearly committed to doing that."
France and most other European countries have programs to assist immigrants in returning home. In most cases, the help for illegal migrants is far less generous than thousands of euros. Typically, it means a one-way plane ticket and a few hundred euros for reintegration into their home country.
There has been concern that a generous European policy for expelling people will be a "pull factor" in encouraging further illegal immigration.
But Patricia Coelho, who works on the issue of returns for European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said people pay large amounts of money to smugglers and risk their lives to reach Europe. She added that they aren't doing this with the hope that they'll get a few hundred euros to return home.
"It's just quite ludicrous," she said. "We really don't buy this pull factor argument."
ECRE has welcomed the EU's efforts to harmonize its policies as "a starting point to get countries to agree on basic standards and safeguards." But the EU still needs to define basic terms, such as what is meant by "voluntary," Coelho said.
Are they really volunteering?
Approximately 70 percent of illegal immigrants are forced to return and 30 percent return home voluntarily, according to EU figures. But this means very different things depending on the EU country.
For ECRE, a voluntary return must include the choice to return home or to stay in Europe. Most illegal immigrants who return home don't have that choice. They are picked up by immigration authorities and told they can either "voluntarily" leave or be expelled against their will.
The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) has run voluntary return programs in Europe for more than 20 years. IOM programs help returnees not only with money, but also job counseling, language tutoring and other assistance. IOM helped 28,000 people return home in 2006. While in the past many of the people they assisted were asylum seekers, an increasing number are irregular migrants, said Nicoletta Giordano, who heads the IOM's assisted voluntary returns program.
"The majority of migrants who come to Europe will leave on their own," Giordano said. "We're trying to ensure that people go back in dignity and that their return is not seen as such a failure."
A "hidden form of expulsion"
Voluntary return, as it is used by many EU countries, is often a "hidden form of expulsion," said Jean-Pierre Cassarino Cassarino, the scientific coordinator of the MIREM project. The project supports the reintegration of migrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and is hosted at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies in Florence, Italy.
Migrants who left the EU voluntarily were much more likely to be content with their decision, a MIREM study released last week shows. Of migrants who were forced to return home, 52 percent said they would "absolutely" or "maybe" try to leave again for abroad, according to the MIREM survey.