Countering irregular migration: better EU border management  

Migrants and refugees waiting at Catania port before being identified by Italian authorities and Frontex. © UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta  

The influx of migrants and the security of external borders is a challenge for Europe. Learn more about how Parliament is addressing the situation.

To counter irregular migration, the EU is strengthening border controls, improving the management of new arrivals and making returns of illegal migrants more efficient. It is also working to bolster legal labour migration and deal more efficiently with asylum applications.

Read more about the EU response to migration

What is irregular migration?

Irregular migration is the movement of people from non-EU countries across EU borders without complying with the legal requirements for entry, stay, or residence in one or more EU countries.

Number of illegal border crossings into Europe

In 2015, there was a significant increase in the number of illegal border crossings into the EU. According to data from Frontex, the EU's border agency, there were more than 1.8 million illegal border crossings, the highest number ever recorded. Since then, the number of illegal border crossings has decreased significantly.

In 2021, about 140,000 people entered the EU illegally. The decrease is due to several factors, such as the EU's strengthened border control measures, cooperation between EU countries and the decline in the number of refugees fleeing conflict zones.

Discover more figures on migration in the EU

Strengthening the EU's external border management and security

The lack of internal border controls in the Schengen area must go hand in hand with compensatory measures to strengthen the external borders. MEPs underlined the severity of the situation in a resolution adopted in April 2016.

Systematic checks for all at EU and Schengen external borders

Systematic checks at the EU's external borders on everyone entering the Union - including EU citizens - were introduced in April 2017. In October 2017, Parliament backed a common electronic system to speed up checks at the Schengen area’s external borders and to register all non-EU travellers.

Etias: authorisation for non-EU visa-exempted travellers

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) is an electronic visa waiver programme that will require travellers from visa-exempt countries to obtain an electronic travel authorisation before travelling to the EU. The authorisation will be valid for three years or until the passport expires and will allow multiple entries into the Schengen Area for stays of up to 90 days within a six-month period. It is expected to be launched in 2024.

Reform of EU border check procedures for irregular migrants

In April 2023, Parliament approved its position on revisions to the external border procedure for managing irregular migrants and will now begin negotiations with the Council. The changes aim to better address the complexities and challenges of managing migration while ensuring that the rights and needs of irregular migrants are respected and protected.

It proposes the possibility of a faster and simplified procedure for asylum claims directly after screening. These should be completed in 12 weeks, including appeals. In the case of a rejection or dismissal of a claim, the failed applicant should be returned within 12 weeks.

The new rules would also limit the use of detention. While an asylum claim is being assessed or the return procedure is being processed, the asylum applicant has to be accommodated by the EU country. Detention should only be used as a last resort.

EU countries would have to set up independent mechanisms for the monitoring and assessment of reception and detention conditions, with the aim of ensuring respect for EU and international refugee laws and human rights.

Screening migrants at EU border

In April 2023, Parliament also approved its position for a revision of the screening regulation. MEPs are now set to enter negotiations with EU countries. The revised rules on screening will apply at EU borders to people who do not fulfil the entry conditions of an EU country and who apply for international protection at a border crossing point. They include identification, fingerprinting, security checks, and preliminary health and vulnerability assessment.

The screening procedure should take up to five days, or 10 in the case of a crisis situation. National authorities will then decide on either granting international protection or initiating the return procedure.

European Border and Coast Guard Agency

In December 2015, the European Commission put forward a proposal on establishing a European Border and Coast Guard with the aim of reinforcing the management and security of the EU's external borders and supporting national border guards.

The new agency, which was launched in October 2016, united Frontex and the national authorities responsible for border management. There are plans to give the agency a standing corps of 10,000 border guards by 2027.

Integrated Border Management Fund

In a resolution adopted in July 2021, Parliament approved the renewed Integrated Border Management Fund (IBMF) and agreed to allocate €6.24 billion to it. The new fund should help to enhance member states’ capacities in external border management while ensuring fundamental rights are respected. It will also contribute to a common, harmonised visa policy, and introduce protective measures for vulnerable people arriving in Europe, notably unaccompanied children.

The fund will work closely with the new Internal Security Fund, focusing on tackling terrorism, organised crime and cybercrime. The Internal Security Fund was also approved by Parliament in July 2021 with a budget of €1.9 billion.

Internal border controls

EU countries have been reinstating border controls within the Schengen area over the last few years and these controls often last for long periods. In order to preserve free movement while addressing genuine security threats, the Commission put forward a proposal in 2021.

In October 2023, Parliament agreed on its position and voted to enter into negotiations with the Council.

As an alternative to internal border controls, the new rules promote police cooperation in border regions to address unauthorised movements within the Schengen area. , Apprehended non-EU citizens with irregular status often arrive from another EU country so if the two countries hold joint patrols, the irregular migrants may be transferred back to the first EU country. MEPs want to exclude several categories, including unaccompanied minors, from such returns.

MEPs also propose clear criteria for imposing internal border controls in response to serious threats. A justified reason, such as an identified and immediate threat of terrorism, is required before internal border controls can be introduced, and such controls would have a time limit of up to eighteen months. If the threat persists, more border controls could be authorised by a Council decision.

The proposal also allows for the reintroduction of border controls in several countries for a period of up to two years when the Commission receives notifications about a particularly serious threat affecting many countries simultaneously.

Returning irregular migrants more efficiently


European travel document for the return of migrants with irregular status

In September 2016, Parliament approved a Commission proposal for a standard EU travel document to speed up the return of non-EU nationals staying irregularly in the EU without valid passports or identity cards. The regulation has been applicable since April 2017.

The Schengen Information System

The Schengen Information System was reinforced in November 2018 to help EU countries with the return of illegally staying non-EU nationals to their country of origin. It now includes:

  • alerts on return decisions by EU countries
  • national authorities responsible for issuing return decisions having access to data from the Schengen Information System
  • safeguards to protect migrants’ fundamental rights


EU Return Directive

The EU Return Directive is the main piece of legislation that sets out the procedures and criteria that EU countries must implement when returning people from outside the EU who have been staying irregularly.

As of September 2018, the EU has been working to revise the EU Return Directive, aiming to reduce the length of return procedures, secure a better link between asylum and return procedures, and prevent absconding.

The new provisions aim to determine the risk of absconding, which is the risk that a migrant would try to hide away from authorities, while a decision on their status is being taken. The amended rules impose obligations on migrants to cooperate with authorities. They also require EU countries to create a return management system.

In a report adopted in December 2020, MEPs called for the better implementation of the EU Return Directive, urging EU countries to respect fundamental rights and procedural safeguards when applying EU legislation on returns, as well as prioritise voluntary returns.

MEPs are expected to vote on their position on the changes to the Return Directive in December 2023.

Find out more about returning irregular migrants to their countries

Preventing irregular immigration by tackling the root causes of migration

Conflict, persecution, ethnic cleansing, extreme poverty and natural disasters can all be root causes of migration. In July 2015, MEPs urged the EU to adopt a long-term strategy to help counteract these factors.

In order to tackle the root causes of migration, an EU scheme aiming to mobilise €44 billion in private investment in neighbouring countries and in Africa was backed by MEPs on 6 July 2017.

The new EU Agency for Asylum and Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund

The EU Agency for Asylum, formerly known as the European Asylum Support Office, is responsible for supporting EU countries in their implementation of the Common European Asylum System.

The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) is a financial instrument that supports the EU's efforts to manage migration.

In December 2021, Parliament approved the fund's budget for 2021-2027, which increased to €9.88 billion.

EU-Turkey migration agreement

The EU-Turkey agreement was signed in March 2016 in response to the increased number of irregular migrants and refugees entering the EU through Turkey following the civil war in Syria. Both parties agreed to ensure improved reception conditions for refugees in Turkey and open up safe and legal channels to Europe for Syrian refugees.

Under the agreement, Turkey agreed to take back all irregular migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece from Turkey after 20 March, 2016. In return, the EU agreed to provide financial assistance to Turkey to support the hosting of refugees in Turkey, as well as to accelerate the accession process of Turkey to the EU and provide visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU.

In a report adopted on 19 May 2021, MEPs underlined Turkey’s important role as host to nearly four million refugees, noting that the challenges in addressing this crisis have increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They condemned, however, the use of migratory pressure as a tool for political leverage following reports that the country’s authorities encouraged migrants and refugees and asylum seekers with misleading information to take the land route to Europe through Greece.

More on migration and the EU