Countering irregular migration: better EU border management

The arrival of migrants through irregular channels at the EU’s external borders is a challenge for Europe. Learn how Parliament is addressing the situation.

 Migrants and refugees coming mostly from Sub-Saharan countries await at the dock of Catania port before being identified by the Italian authorities and Frontex.
Migrants and refugees waiting at Catania port before being identified by Italian authorities and Frontex. © UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

To counter irregular migration, the EU has strengthened border controls, improved the management of new arrivals and made returns of irregular migrants more efficient. It has also bolstered legal labour migration and ensured that asylum applications can be dealt with more efficiently.

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 irregular border crossings into Europe

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

In 2023, about 355,300 people entered the EU irregularly, the highest number since 2016.

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 EU - 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 mid 2025.

Screening migrants at and within the EU’s external borders

In April 2024, as part of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, Parliament endorsed an agreement reached with national governments to revise rules on screening people at the EU’s external borders. The rules apply when travellers who do not fulfil the entry conditions of an EU country are apprehended crossing a border point irregularly, are rescued at sea, or who apply for international protection at an external border crossing point.

If non-EU citizens are found in the EU without proper authorisation after evading external border controls, they must also undergo screening.

The checks include identification, fingerprinting, security checks, and preliminary health and vulnerability assessment. The screening procedure should take up to seven days.

In negotiations with the EU governments, MEPs secured a strong, independent monitoring mechanism in each EU country to protect fundamental rights of people undergoing screening.

Faster asylum decisions at external EU borders

Another component of the pact, which Parliament also approved in April 2024, is a new border procedure that is to be performed directly after screening those who request asylum at the EU's external borders are apprehended in relation to an irregular border crossing or after being rescued at sea. The aim is to quickly assess at the EU’s external borders whether applications for asylum are unfounded or inadmissible.

The procedure is mandatory if the applicant is a danger to national security or public order, if they have misled the authorities or if the applicant is from a country where fewer than 20% of asylum requests are typically approved.

The procedure 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. While asylum seekers are undergoing the border procedure, they will not be allowed to enter the EU country.

During negotiations, MEPs pushed to ensure that:

  • free legal counselling is available to applicants in all administrative procedures
  • unaccompanied minors would not be subject to border procedures, unless they present a security risk
  • families with children are offered appropriate reception conditions

The European Commission will set the maximum number of assylum applications that each EU country should process at its borders.

Referring asylum seekers back to safe non-EU countries

Under the asylum procedure regulation, national authorities may decide that an asylum application is inadmissible if the applicant comes from a safe non-EU country. That would be a country that treats asylum seekers in accordance with accepted international standards.

Тhe asylum applicants should have a genuine connection to that country that would allow them to go there.

While EU countries will still rely on their own lists of safe countries, eventually, the rules envisage a convergence towards an EU list of safe non-EU countries and safe countries of origin.

Thwarting destabilisation attempts through irregular migration

In recent years the EU has seen attempts by governments and non-state actors to artificially create migration waves towards EU countries in order to destabilise them. This does not only put extra burden on EU countries, but also creates humanitarian crises by trapping irregular migrants between borders.

The EU has adopted a series of measures to address migrant instrumentalisation, which include border control measures, new legislation, sanctions, and diplomatic and humanitarian actions. One action is the adoption of the Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation, which is another component of the Pact on Migration and aims to give EU countries more flexibility when they apply asylum and border procedures in crisis situations.

European Border and Coast Guard Agency

In December 2015, the 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. The agency also has a stronger mandate on returns and cooperates more closely with non-EU countries.

Following accusations of the agency not complying with its own rules, Parliament established in January 2021 the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group to monitor all aspects of its work, including compliance with fundamental rights.

In December 2023, MEPs called for Frontex to do more to improve EU countries’ capacity to carry out search and rescue at sea, but also to scale down its operations in EU countries which do not respect EU principles and values to mere monitoring and presence on the ground.

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

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. During negotiations, MEPs pushed for additional safeguards when it comes to minors.

MEPs insisted on 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 two years. If the threat persists, border controls could be extended by one more year.

The new rules also lay out procedures available to Schengen countries in situations of migrant instrumentalisation, including limiting border-crossing points.

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 ilrregularly 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.

The key features of the Return Directive include a general rule of allowing the irregularly staying person to leave voluntarily, a minimum set of basic rights for irregularly staying migrants, limitations on coercive measures and detention, as well as an entry ban throughout the EU following a return.

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.

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. It has been in force since September 2017.

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

The EU Agency for Asylum, formerly known as EASO, is responsible for supporting EU countries in their implementation of asylum rules, with the aim of making the overall EU migration management system more efficient and sustainable.

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- Türkiye migration agreement

The EU-Türkiye agreement was signed in March 2016 in response to the increased number of irregular migrants and refugees entering the EU through Türkiye 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, Türkiye agreed to take back all irregular migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece from Türkiye after 20 March, 2016. In return, the EU agreed to provide financial assistance to Türkiye to support the hosting of refugees in Turkey, as well as to accelerate the accession process of Türkiye to the EU and provide visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU.

In a report adopted on 19 May 2021, MEPs underlined Türkiye’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 asylum seekers with misleading information to take the land route to Europe through Greece.

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10,000 officers for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency