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Irregular immigration

The nature of irregular immigration into the EU makes it a phenomenon that is difficult to quantify. However, certain indicators provide guidance: in 2013, the number of irregularly staying non-EU nationals apprehended in the EU was about 429 000 (this represents a marginal decrease of about 1% compared to 2012, and about 30% compared to 2008). Dealing firmly and effectively with irregular immigration is a precondition for a credible migration policy.

Stopping those who organise irregular immigration

In 2014, 276 113 migrants entered the EU irregularly, which represent an increase of 138% compared to the same period in 2013. To enter the EU clandestinely via land, air and sea routes, most migrants have recourse to criminal networks of smugglers.

Smuggling of migrants is commonly understood as the intentional organisation or facilitation of the movement of persons across international borders, which is provided by the smugglers in return of financial gain (or other gain). Thus, smuggling generally takes place with the consent of the migrant.

The fight against migrant smuggling has been part of the EU policy to tackle irregular migration since more than a decade. In 2002, the EU adopted a legal framework on smuggling (so-called “facilitators package”: Directive defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence and Framework Decision on the strengthening of the penal framework to prevent the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence). Operational measures have been undertaken jointly by EU State law enforcement authorities with the support of EU Agencies to disrupt and dismantle organised criminal groups involved in the facilitation of irregular immigration. Intelligence on modus operandi and routes used by smugglers has been collected, including through debriefing of migrants and the Network of the Immigration Liaison Officers.

However, today, the EU response to migrant smuggling needs to be reinforced and better coordinated to fight effectively transnational criminal networks of smugglers and to address an unprecedented migratory crisis in the Mediterranean. To this end, the Commission is preparing a comprehensive approach to counter migrant smuggling, which will be presented in 2015. It will focus on prevention through enhanced cooperation with countries of origin and transit and dismantling of the criminal networks through reinforced intelligence sharing, investigation capacities and prosecution.

In some cases, migrants continue to depend on criminals after they have arrived in the EU. Several thousand people are trafficked into the EU or within the EU every year (more information on trafficking in human beings). With a view to tackling human trafficking networks and smugglers, the EU has established tougher rules for action against criminals involved in trafficking in human beings, combined with better assistance for victims.

The EU has set forth a comprehensive policy and legal framework to address trafficking in human beings. In 2010, the Commission appointed an EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator to provide strategic policy orientation and improve coordination and consistency among actions by EU institutions, EU agencies, EU States, non-EU countries and international players addressing trafficking in human beings. In addition, an EU anti-trafficking website has been launched, which serves as a horizontal information hub on funding, policy, legislation, case law, national information and events on trafficking in human beings.

Sanctioning those who hire irregular labour force

The existence of an informal labour market is a pull-factor for irregular immigration and the accompanying exploitation of non-EU nationals. EU States have agreed rules to counter the effect that the availability of black market work plays in attracting irregular migrants. In addition to preventive measures and stricter inspections, the Employer Sanctions Directive targets employers who employ such migrants. The Directive not only seeks to make employing irregular migrants more difficult, but also includes protection measures in favour of workers, especially those exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Improving external border controls

Images of migrants crammed into unseaworthy boats making perilous voyages to Europe grab the headlines and have come to symbolise the irregular migration phenomenon. To address this phenomenon, a major joint effort by the coastguard and naval services are required, together with assistance from the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (FRONTEX). They not only manage the influx but often save lives.

Moreover, most irregular migrants originally entered the EU legally on short-stay visas, but remain in the EU for economic reasons once their visa has expired. Effective and credible management of the external borders is essential. The EU has therefore developed an integrated border management strategy which aims to maintain high levels of security by using, for example, information technology (like the Visa Information System) and biometric features (e.g. fingerprints) for identification.

With a view to preventing irregular migration, to ensure that each EU State effectively controls its own portion of the EU's external borders and to build trust in the effectiveness of the EU system of migration management, as well as to ensure that fundamental rights of the migrants are fully respected, the Commission has proposed different measures, including legislative changes, some of which have already been adopted and are now being implemented, while others are still being discussed by the legislators (i.e. the Council and the European Parliament):

  • Strengthening the mandate of FRONTEX so that it can act more effectively at the external border.
  • Establishing an evaluation mechanism to verify the correct application of the Schengen acquis.
  • Intensifying coordination between border surveillance authorities (which is the purpose of the European Border Surveillance System – EUROSUR) and considering the feasibility of creating a European system of border guards.
  • Establishing rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by FRONTEX.
  • Considering the establishment of a European entry-exit system, ensuring that data on border crossings by non-EU nationals are available for Border control and immigration authorities. A registered traveller programme allowing non-EU nationals to use an automated Border control system, making access to the EU easier, will also be considered.

A humane and effective Return and readmission policy

A humane and effective return policy - in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and based on the principle of giving preference to voluntary return — is essential to a comprehensive and sustainable migration policy. The EU is seeking to harmonise and support national efforts to better manage returns and to facilitate reintegration with the Return Directive (which lays down common standards and procedures for the return of non-EU nationals who are staying in the EU irregularly) as well as with the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Effective cooperation with non-EU countries on the basis of readmission agreements is also necessary to ensure that the return policy is efficient.

Return legislation is part of the Schengen acquis. Its correct implementation in the EU States is checked through evaluation visits led by the Commission, together with experts designated by the EU States and other countries participating in Schengen.

So far the Commission has been formally authorised to negotiate EU readmission agreements with Russia, Morocco, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, the Chinese Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao, Algeria, Turkey, Albania, China, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Cape Verde, Tunisia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Agreements with the two Chinese Special Administrative Regions, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine, the Western Balkan countries, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cape Verde and Pakistan have entered into force.

Additional tools


European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR)

Establishes a common framework for the exchange of information and for the cooperation between EU States and Frontex to improve situational awareness ...


Voluntary return

The assisted or independent return to the country of origin, transit or third country based on the free will of ...


Travel document

A passport or other equivalent document entitling the holder to cross the external borders and to which a visa ...


Trafficking in human beings

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons, including the exchange or transfer ...


Smuggler (of migrants)

An intermediary who moves a person by agreement with that person, in order to transport him/her in an ...



In a general sense, the act or process of going back to the point of departure. This could be within the territorial ...



Re-inclusion or re-incorporation of a person into a group or a process, e.g. of a migrant into the society of ...


Readmission agreement

International agreement that addresses procedures, on a reciprocal basis, for one State to return non-nationals...



Act by a State accepting the re-entry of an individual (own national, third-country national or stateless person).


Non-EU national

Any person not having the nationality of an EU State.



The movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border (international migration),...



A broader-term of an immigrant and emigrant, referring to a person who leaves one country or region to settle in ...



Comprises three main tasks: - supervision and responsibility for increasing the performance of others...


Legal entry

Entry of a non-EU national into a Schengen State, for a stay not exceeding three months per a six-month period,...


Irregular stay

The presence on the territory of a Schengen State of a non-EU national who does not fulfil, or no longer fulfils, the ...


Irregular migration

The movement of a person to a new place of residence or transit using irregular or illegal means, without valid ...


Irregular immigration

The immigration of a person to a new place of residence using irregular or illegal means, without valid documents ...


Irregular migrant

People who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits...



The action by which a person establishes his or her usual residence in the territory of an EU State for a period ...



The process of determining a person's identity through a database search against multiple sets of data (one-to...


External EU border

An EU States’ land borders, including river and lake borders, sea borders and their airports, river ports, sea ports ...


European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR)

A surveillance system for the EU's external borders.


European Return Fund

A financial instrument for the period 2008 to 2013, which supports EU States in the management of return...


European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX)

A specialised and independent body tasked to coordinate EU States' operational cooperation in the management ...


EU agency

There are two broad types of agency, each with different characteristics and raising different issues. "Regulatory" or ...


Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union

Reaffirms, with due regard for the powers and tasks of the Union and for the principle of subsidiarity, the rights ...


Border crossing

The physical act of crossing a border either at a border crossing point or another point along the border.


Border control

The activity carried out at a border, in accordance with and for the purposes of Regulation 562/2006, exclusively in ...



A line separating land territory or maritime zones of two States or subparts of States. It can also refer to a region ...



A measurable unique, physical characteristic or personal behavioural trait used to recognize the identity, or verify ...


Automated border control

The use of automatic or semi-automatic systems that can verify the identity of passengers crossing the borders ...



The body of common rights and obligations that is binding on all EU States. (...)