Legal procedures have stifled a deal between Bangladesh and the European Union to repatriate Bangladeshis who entered the continent illegally, officials said Wednesday.
Less than 200 Bangladeshis have returned home since the deal known as the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) was signed in 2017 to establish protocols for repatriating about 93,000 Bangladeshi migrants who have no right to stay in EU-member countries, officials said.
“So far, some 190 Bangladeshis have returned home,” Mohammad Khorshed Alam Khastagir, director-general of the West Europe and EU desk at the Bangladeshi foreign ministry, told BenarNews.
EU nations, which began grappling with a refugee and migrant crisis in 2015, could not repatriate foreigners whose documents to legalize their stay were still being processed, officials said.
“The Bangladeshis who’ve exhausted the legal procedures have returned home,” Khastagir said. “The concerned EU countries cannot send the illegal migrants before exhausting the legal process.”
The repatriated Bangladeshis include 60 from Germany, while the rest came several nations, including Austria and Greece, he said.
The non-binding SOP is aimed at creating transparent and effective procedures “for the identification and safe and orderly return of persons who have no legal basis” or valid travel papers to stay on in the European Union, according to a copy of the document.
A slow process
More than 140,000 migrants reached the European Union either by sea or land last year, much lower than the estimated 1 million people who arrived during the peak of the European migrant crisis four years ago, according to the United Nations.
Most migrants in the EU legalize their stay in the regional bloc by seeking political asylum, the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office said in a report early this month, but noted that “much fewer applications” for asylum were lodged by Bangladeshis.
EU laws are based on respect for human rights, and European authorities take “maximum caution” before deporting an illegal migrant, said Munim Hasan, a joint secretary at Bangladesh’s Home Ministry who is well-versed on the SOP.
“There are spaces for migrants [to legalize their stay] at every step of execution of the SOP,” Hasan told BenarNews. “So, it will take years to deport an illegal migrant.”
“The SOP works very well, and both the EU and Bangladesh have been working according to the steps of the SOP,” he said.
In September 2017, Bangladesh and the EU signed the SOP in New York as Europeans fiercely debated about an influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The migration debate became especially heated because of Italy’s decision in June this year to ban private rescue ships with migrants aboard from entering Italian ports and waters.
Mohammad Arfanul Hoque, Bangladesh’s labor counsellor in Rome, told BenarNews that his office could not provide an updated number of illegal Bangladeshis living in Italy.
“So far, no Bangladeshi has been deported from Italy under the SOP,” he said.
According to official figures from the European Commission, more than 93,000 Bangladeshis entered Europe illegally between 2008 and 2015. Latest figures from the commission were not available.
The EU mission in Dhaka declined to respond to questions about the SOP from BenarNews, referring them to the foreign ministry.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that 145 Bangladeshis had entered Europe via Italian waters in the first five months of 2019, less than half of last year’s 349 Bangladeshi arrivals.
Hoque said the Bangladeshis who entered Europe illegally through Italy or lost legal status would often apply for economic or political asylum before the courts.
Italian authorities would take about 60 days to consider the application but a decision could take up to one and a half years, he said.
“In most of the cases, the applications are turned down,” he said. “But, by that time, the migrants could have fled to other countries.”
During the first six months this year, at least 581 people died or went missing while trying to enter Europe via Mediterranean, according to UNHCR, which did not provide a breakdown of nationalities.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tunisia, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq and Bangladesh were the top five countries whose nationals attempted to enter the EU illegally by sea.
Joseph Tripura, spokesman for the UNHCR office in Dhaka, told BenarNews that the refugee agency had no figures on illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the EU countries.
Despite Italy’s orders to stay away from its waters, migrants have not stopped coming. Italy is the main entry point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. On Tuesday, the Italian government shut down a migrant center on the island of Sicily that had been one of Europe’s largest migrant centers, reports said.
On May 10 this year, as many as 70 people drowned and at least 16 others, including Bangladeshis and Moroccans, were rescued when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea after it left Libya for Italy, U.N. migration officials said.
The toll was the largest number of migrants killed since a Jan. 19 sinking in which 117 migrants were reported missing and presumed dead, according to an IOM official.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.