Returns and Reintegration

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has become an essential actor in migration enforcement on the European level, taking on new responsibilities and tools related to returns of people who have exhausted all legal avenues to legitimise their stay within the EU. This has led to a significant rise in the number of foreign nationals Frontex has helped EU countries to return in recent years. In 2021, there were 18 300 people returned with Frontex support.

Frontex is responsible for the coordination of return operations at a technical and operational level, including voluntary departures. In practice, this means that Frontex offers support in the organisation and implementation, including financing or co-financing, of return operations organised from individual Member States.

Where does Frontex come in?

Non-EU nationals who have exhausted all legal avenues to remain in the EU or who have committed offences in a Member State, receive a return decision from a court or competent authorities of Member States. According to Eurostat, every year around a quarter of a million people are subject to such orders. The vast majority of them leave voluntarily. However, when illegally-staying non-EU nationals refuse to comply with the return decision, as a last resort they may be forcibly returned.

Frontex can assist Member States upon their request or on the agency’s proposal in carrying out return operations through:

  1. organising or coordinating both national and joint return operation;
  2. assisting Member States in both forced return operations and in voluntary departures;
  3. organising or coordinating collecting return operations.
Frontex is responsible for the coordination of return operations, but it is crucial to understand that the decision about who should be returned is always taken by the judicial or administrative authorities of the Member States. According to European legislation, the individual is always given the possibility to appeal against this return decision. Frontex does not enter into the merits of return decisions issued by the Member States. This is the exclusive responsibility of Member States.

Types of operations

Forced return operations, voluntary departures and readmissions

While Frontex continues to coordinate forced return operations from individual Member States, it may also propose to coordinate or organise returns on its own initiative, also by chartering of aircraft. In addition, Frontex provides support with voluntary departures of non-EU nationals who are subject to individual return decisions with a granted period for voluntary departure.

The agency can also provide support to Member States in readmission operations by providing transportation and escort officers to Member States.

Joint return operations

Most Member States organise return operations individually. There is, however, a possibility for two or more countries to organise a joint return operation. If one Member State organises a return operation by air to a specific country of return and has some spare capacity on the plane, it can invite other Member States to take part. The organising Member State informs Frontex about its intention to conduct a return flight and requests the assistance of Frontex to coordinate this operation. Frontex then dispatches this information to all other Member States.

The returnees are accompanied by escort officers from the different Member States taking part in the operation, medical staff and translators. Member States shall monitor every return operation in accordance with EU legislation.

Collecting return operations 

Frontex can also coordinate collecting return operations, where the means of transport and escort officers are provided by the non-EU country of destination.

The returnees from the participating Member States are transported to the organising Member State. The participating Member States and the agency ensure that the respect for fundamental rights, the principle of non-refoulement, and the proportionate use of means of constraints are guaranteed during the entire return operation.

Prior to organising collecting return operations, the escorts of the non-EU country of return are trained by the agency to comply with EU standards, including on fundamental rights. In addition, at least one Member State representative, one forced-return monitor and medical staff are present throughout the entire return operation.

Pools of return experts 

As part of the new expanded mandate on returns, Frontex has created three pools of return experts who support the return of non-EU nationals from Member States: return monitors, return escorts and return specialists. The experts nominated by Member States are at the disposal of Frontex and may be deployed to a host Member State at its request.  

These experts will be deployed in return operations or return interventions coordinated by the agency to carry out specific tasks, such as assisting in the acquisition of travel documents from non-EU countries and facilitation of consular cooperation, or in order to provide the Member States with additional resources to escort returnees, as well as to comply with their obligation to monitor forced return operations. Some of the experts have specific expertise in child protection.

Monitoring of return operations

All return operations must be monitored in accordance with EU law and a forced-return monitor must deliver a report to the agency and to all the Member States involved in the given operation. The monitoring covers the whole return operation, from the pre-departure phase to the hand-over of the returnees in the non-EU country of return.

Other return-related activities 

Frontex plays a role in coordinating return-related activities of Member States. In addition, the agency coordinates the use of IT systems and activities that enable the exchange of information between Member States in return matters.

The agency supports and facilitates cooperation between Member States and non-EU countries in the field of identification – establishing nationality, acquiring travel documents and by providing practical information on countries of return. Those Member States which experience particular challenges related to their return systems receive specific technical and operational assistance, based on clearly identified needs..

The Return Process 

The return process consists of a number of steps:

  • Voluntary return: The national authorities inform all returnees about the possibility of assisted voluntary return. About half of those eligible for return accept that this option. 
  • The Return decision: Individuals who have exhausted all legal avenues to legitimise their stay within the EU or who have committed offences in a Member State receive a return decision from a court or competent authorities of Member States. These decisions are taken by the relevant authorities in Member States on individual assessment.
  • Appeals procedure: Every person has the right to appeal against the return decision. This process is in the hands of the authorities of the individual Member States.
  • Voluntary departure: Non-EU nationals subject to individual return decisions may be granted a period for voluntary departure.
  • Identification process: Non-EU nationals without proper travel documents cannot be returned. The non-EU country authorities have to officially confirm their nationality in order to be able to issue travel documents. Frontex can assist the Member States national authorities with the process of identification.
  • Acquisition of travel documents: Once the authorities of the non-EU country establishes that the national is indeed from their country, they can issue a travel document. In case a travel document is not issued by the relevant authorities, a European travel document could be issued by Member States based on an agreement signed with the country of return.
  • The Return operation: The returns are carried out by Member States by, land, sea or air, although mostly by commercial flights. Some return operations are also carried out by chartered flights, either unilaterally or jointly by Member States. The use of a charter is only possible with the consent of each country of return. Joint return operations are usually coordinated and co-financed by Frontex.
  • Acceptance by the country of return: A return operation is complete upon the successful handover of a returnee to the authorities of the country of return. If the handover is rejected, the returnee is transferred back to the Member State that first requested the return.

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