Madam President, dear Roberta,
Last year, Frontex reported 330,000 irregular border crossings. This is a 64% increase compared to the year before and the highest figure since 2016. In parallel, there were 924,000 asylum applications across the European Union. There are without any doubt increasing pressures at our external borders. It is our duty to make sure that Europe continues to be a space for protection for those who need it. However, the asylum and reception systems across Member States are under considerable strain. And fact is that the majority of those who apply for asylum are not in need of protection. But return rates are at a low of 22%. And there is an increasing number of secondary movements.
Migration is a European challenge which must be met with a European response. This might sound like common sense. But it took us almost ten years to acknowledge this reality. At the European Council next week, I will propose to the Heads of State or Government two separate work strands: The legislative process is one and the operational actions we can take already now is the second.
On the legislative process: The best response we can give is to advance on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Since the Commission presented its proposals, we have seen quite some good progress. We have agreed on the EU Blue Card to attract highly skilled personnel. We have established the new EU Asylum Agency. In December, a political agreement was reached on three important legislative proposals. Trilogues started to upgrade our biometric database – the Eurodac. And we hope for trilogues to start soon on screening. So we must keep up the good pace. And here the role of this House is key. I am glad that on your initiative, Madam President, dear Roberta, the Parliament and the Council agreed on a roadmap to conclude all the legislative work before March next year. And you can count on the full support of the Commission to achieve that. I know that Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and Commissioner Ylva Johansson are working tirelessly on that.
The second work strand is immediate action. This is what the European Council will focus on. Over time, we have developed a migration and border management toolbox, we have stronger agencies, and we are coordinated better. We have proven to be able to respond to sudden demands if we work together. Take the instrumentalisation of migrants by Belarus. Or the sudden rise of irregular migration in the Western Balkans. Or our response to Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine. A whole continent has mobilised for our Ukrainian friends. Volunteers rushed to the borders. Families opened their homes – and not only their homes but also their hearts. And at the institutional level, we immediately activated temporary protection for Ukrainians. We know that we can address increasing challenges if we take action together. And now we can do this again.
Here, I want to outline four points of action, where we can make a real difference on the ground. The first is: we have a shared interest in strong external borders. The most pressing issues right now are at the land border between Bulgaria and Türkiye. We can strengthen the border with management capabilities. We can also provide infrastructure and equipment, like drones, radar and other means of surveillance – as we have done in the last years for example in Romania, we have done it in Spain, in Greece and in Poland. And we can increase the presence of Frontex.
On the other hand, we must urgently address the situation in the Central Mediterranean. The migratory pressure has increased significantly, and all too often tragically at the expense of human life. We need to support our Member States as well as our North African partners in coordinating their search and rescue capacities. And we will continue supporting UNHCR and IOM on the ground to help build capacities for asylum, reception and return. At the same time, we will continue supporting Member States to address challenges along the Western and Eastern Mediterranean routes.
Behind all this, there are criminal networks. They are organising ruthlessly the shabby life vests, the boats; they are robbing the migrants; they are trading in human life. We have to intensify our fight against those smugglers. And we will launch a new anti-smuggling partnership with key third countries. These will bring together prosecutors and law enforcement authorities, supported by Europol and supported by Eurojust. Together we have to stop this business of exploitation.
My second point is focusing on faster and dignified returns. Every year there are around 300,000 return decisions taken by Member States. But only around 70,000 people are actually returned. We have to get better. Some of the shortcomings we can act on now. For instance, a return decision that is taken in one Member State should be valid in all Member States. So, if a person with a return decision by Italy is found in France, that person can be directly returned to his or her country of origin. This will become possible now with the Schengen Information System that enters into operation in March. And we want Member States to make use of this possibility.
Thirdly, we have to address secondary movements while ensuring effective solidarity. Solidarity and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. And therefore, these two issues can only be addressed together. Let me give you some figures and some elements that are important for us. We must work together to reduce the incentives for secondary movements. It is very good that we now have the Dublin Roadmap in place since December. But of course, Member States need to implement it now. And at the same time, if we look at the voluntary solidarity mechanism agreed last summer, this should not only be on paper, it needs to deliver. Until today, there are only 8,000 pledges for relocation. And just round about 400 have actually been transferred. European solidarity must and can be stronger than that. And we will need to see to this with a permanent solidarity mechanism in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Last but definitely not least, there is the external dimension. We need to engage more closely with key partners. Migration management must be built in as one important aspect of the European Union’s relations with partners. Overall, our relations need to reflect a strategic engagement in a spirit of cooperation. We should recognise the interests of our partners and cooperate with them by supporting education, by creating new businesses opportunities, by fostering job creation. That same spirit of cooperation should help us to reduce irregular departures and step up returns. Talent partnerships, visa policy, trade and investment play an important role here, as well as opportunities for safe and legal pathways as part of our overall comprehensive approach to migration management. It is a fair balance that we need to find.
Migration is very complex. It is a matter of understanding each other’s challenges and a matter of working together. This is what we will present to the European Council on 9 February.