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The EU is looking to plug a big gap in migration policy by boosting measures to have irregular migrants voluntarily returned to their countries under a strategy adopted on Tuesday.

Controversially, the European Commission's plan on return and reintegration puts the EU's border agency Frontex at its heart, despite multiple news reports and NGO allegations of rights abuses by its officers -- the bloc's first uniformed force.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson defended the agency's role from the cloud that lingers over it.

She told a media conference that, while "shortcomings" had been identified, an inquiry by Frontex's board had concluded last month "that the agency was not involved in this type of activity".

She added that the border agency was "very well placed" to help EU member states to encourage migrants with no right to stay to return to their countries of origin.

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Frontex will "grow with these new tasks", Johansson said, with the aim of "protecting our borders, and our fundamental rights to manage migration, and to make Europe a secure area".

The commission vice-president tasked with protecting the "European way of life", Margaritis Schinas, said "we will not accept this Frontex bashing".

He emphasised that "it's already part of their job" to oversee migrant returns and "we expect of them to continue doing (so) under European humane and values driven procedures".

Schinas also admitted that, up to now, there has been an EU "failure" to get migrant returns done, noting that in 2019 around half a million people had received orders to leave member states but only 142,000 did so.

"We're managing roughly the one-third of those who should leave," he said.

Persuading countries

Key to the commission's strategy is persuading countries of origin to take back migrants told to leave the EU.

Part of that is providing reintegration assistance in those countries, with Frontex from next month to run a pilot programme for individuals going back voluntarily.

The strategy also calls for a Frontex-designed programme to train "return counsellors" in member states.

The plan seeks to overcome a fragmented approach by member states in the way they handle returns and reintegration support.

The strategy urges a "fast and fair" common approach on asylum rules and returns, better statistics collection, boosted funding and improved coordination across different authorities and agencies at international, national and local levels.

The commission presented the strategy as one link in a chain of initiatives that need to be worked out for a revamp of the bloc's overall migration and asylum rules.

An overhaul of those rules has been bogged down for years because of an unwillingness by countries to share the hosting of asylum-seekers, with most arriving and processed in the EU's southern member states, particularly Greece and Italy.

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