The need to address the phenomenon of irregular migration in the European Union, following the existing policy measures and taking into consideration the different interests among the Member States, was particularly noticeable during the last five years period. Two main causes have created the basis for the emergence of new tendencies and increased flow of irregular migration in the Euro-Mediterranean area, namely related to the economic crisis in the eurozone, especially in the southern Member States and the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

That resulted in the implementation of the Stockholm Programme to become as the main policy measure provider, followed by the EU decision policy instruments and from the Member States individually, but not as such a dynamic operator in this sector and without many capacities to address the irregular migration effectively and immediately.
The Stockholm Programme was adopted in December 2009 for the five year period 2009-2014 and, substantially, promoted stronger cooperation with the countries of origin and transit of irregular migrants. The measure of the readmission agreements was incorporated as well. However, the aim of the Program regarding the tackling of irregular migration was the achievement of the return without a specific emphasis on the treatment of the causes that promote irregular migration, authorizing the creation of an intolerable phenomenon.
The effects of the economic crisis in addressing the issues of migration policy in Europe and especially regarding the irregular migration were particularly pronounced. The burden of decision-making policies was shifted from the need to renew the European labour population with the legalization process even of irregular migrants in some Member States, to the need of reducing unemployment of European citizens. This led the Member States to adopt limitation measures of regular migration flows by reducing entry Visas and, on the other hand, to increase the treatment of irregular migration flows while strengthening the protection of the external borders. Thus, migrants both in a regular and irregular situation have been pointed as one of the main cause for bringing forward the economic crisis and particularly for the increased high unemployment rate. That accusation was favoured under the general social conditions in Europe, which has been characterized by a climate of xenophobia and racism against migrants and especially against the irregular migrants.
This consequence of the ongoing economic crisis, especially in the southern Member States, has led to further implications not only related to the irregular migrants who, mainly for economic reasons, choose the EU for their new residence destination followed as usual by irregular entry and stay process, but has greatly affected the regular migrants as well. In many Member States the continuity of the regularization procedures started being more difficult even preventing the renewal of residence permits for legal work that had already been granted. Due to the high unemployment, especially in southern Europe, the opportunities for regular employment in many Member States started being limited, so that migrants from third countries, with no access to the labour market, are automatically losing the right to renew their residence permits. Thus, migrants that were used to be under a regular situation, suddenly find themselves under an irregular one in the same Member State in which they were enjoying the benefits of the welfare state until recently. However, the “black” labour market, which is based on the use of cheap labour coming mainly from irregular migrants, began to increase its activity as for employers it was associated with the possibility of continuation of their commercial activity and moreover gave an incentive for many more irregular migrants to look for job opportunities in Europe. This resulted in the creation of intra-European flow of irregular migrants, who are forced to leave the Member State of their last residence and the European area, trying in the aftermath to return again in an irregular manner or still remaining illegally in the Member State of their residence when their identification or a deportation are both unsuccessful practices.
Moreover, the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 caused continuous geopolitical transformations in the region, from North Africa to the Middle East, which have boosted at the same time the irregular migration to the EU, mainly through the Euro-Mediterranean area and the eastern Member States as well. This created an increased tendency to irregular migrants flows, followed by a number of problems which are mainly related to the failure to return procedures of irregular migrants in their countries of origin because of the current political disorder.
Bilateral readmission agreements between specific Member States and countries of the MENA region are not able to be operated, especially due to safety and security reasons caused by the local national authorities that destroyed structures in these countries under situations of political chaos. In response to that crisis, as a complex of political, economic, social and humanitarian aspects, the Commission promoted the “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”, highlighting the Union’s actions in order to build partnerships with North Africa and distinguish refugees from irregular migrants, as a response to the political change in their countries of origin. Following the same direction, the Communication of May 24th 2011 on a “Dialogue for Migration, Mobility and Security with the Southern Mediterranean” aimed at improving mobility of regular migrants from third countries and deal with problems facing mainly the southern Member States.
The uncontrolled issue of increased irregular migrants became more pronounced when the problematic ongoing situation in Syria created intolerable number of irregular migrants aiming at entering into the European Union as the only safe direction. Especially for the treatment of Syrian migrants and as the political situation in Syria got worse, the return of this huge number of people proved to be impossible to create an informal mechanism among the Syrian migrants of entering first in Europe by illegal border crossing and then trying to get access to the asylum system, by seeking political asylum. However, this practice of regularization through the asylum process exists and in the last decades remains a consolidating repeated phenomenon, which is used by the irregular migrants as the only solution to guarantee their stay into the EU area after their irregular entry.
Under these conditions and as reducing irregular migration constitutes an important element within the Union’s approach to develop an appropriate way of managing the migration flows in general, the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted and provided in April 2012 a Strategic Response for EU Action on Migration Pressures. The six non-exhausting Strategic Priority Areas were namely related to the strengthening of the cooperation with the third countries of origin and transit, the strengthening of the Union’s external borders’ management, the prevention of illegal migration through the Greek – Turkish borders, the better tackling of abuse of legal migration channels, the safeguarding of the free movement and enhancing migration management including return. Such initiatives do not address the problem of irregular migration, they rather lead to the restriction of the axes and the range of practices that could be used and this mainly in terms of security and separation of those who can become a regular migrant or those who cannot.
Especially after the tragic accident happened at the coast of Lampedusa in Italy on October 3rd 2013, where 366 people were drowned with their ship while trying to enter Italy and so on the European territory, and after the daily accidents in the Aegean Sea while immigrants are forced to sail from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands, the European migration policy endured much criticism and was accused of being absent and impractical to address irregular migration and the problems it brings or, at least, insufficient to show solidarity with certain Member States, which are facing irregular migration as a major problem.
A Mediterranean Task Force was set up following the Justice and Home Affairs Council on October 7th-8th 2013 and gathered all the EU Member States as well as Frontex, EASO, EMSA, FRA and EUROPOL and associated states in order to identify the most appropriate short and also medium term operational actions to be implemented, addressing the problems of the irregular migration in the area. The work of the Mediterranean Task Force merely reinforced the existing migration management policy of the EU and the same approach to irregular migration by outlining five areas of pre-existing action in cooperation with third countries, fighting against smuggling and trafficking, regional protection, reinforced border surveillance, assistance and solidarity with the member states facing the most pressure. The European Council on December 19th-20th 2013 discussed the report on the work of the Mediterranean Task Force and welcomed the Communication of the European Commission.
Those proposals were approved also to be discussed during the preparation of the post-Stockholm Programme during the European Council in June 2014. The European Council on June 27th 2014 set up a new programme following the end of the Stockholm Programme, providing a roadmap in terms of Justice, Freedom and Security for the five years period 2015-2020. In its conclusions the European Council states that “addressing the root causes of irregular migration flows […] together with the prevention and tackling of irregular migration, will help avoid the loss of lives of migrants undertaking hazardous journeys […] by intensifying cooperation with countries of origin and transit, including through assistance to strengthen their migration and border management capacity” (European Council, 2014). Following the development of the Common European Asylum System and the Integrated Border Management of the external borders, irregular migration is presenting as a crucial issue. Once again the cooperation with the third countries of origin and transit clearly is promoted as the main solution to the problem through the way of the externalization, which has however faced a problematic dimension. What is necessary for the EU is to clarify the problem of irregular migration for better planning actions and practices, and to strengthen this direction through the serious development of the common migration policy.
The EU appears ready to prevent new humanitarian crises once again, due to irregular migration, and to promote the action against the illegal and criminal exploitation of the irregular migration; however, in doing so, it is trying to manage Europe’s profile and ensure its own safety. Thus, especially for the success of the new post-Stockholm programme, it is necessary for the EU to address the core of the problem (such as the treatment of migrants and their associated problems) and not to disavow the real aspects of irregular migration, hidden behind other actions and measures due to many political interests and controversies among the Member States.

STYLIANOS KOSTAS

Master’s degree in Democratic Governance at the MENA region (European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation)