On December 19th, the European Commission released a report on the fulfilment of visa-free requirements by the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries.
Notably, Ukraine appears to be a concern and has mostly shown deteriorating tendencies between 2016 and 2017, with some positive change between 2017 and 2018, but still slow to static progress, if not negative. Irregular immigration seems to be increasing, while there is little done in the fight against organized crime and corruption.
All eight countries included in the group are Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Georgia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia.
Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said:
“Visa free travel with our Western Balkan and Eastern European partners is a great achievement which brings benefits for both sides. It also comes with responsibilities and obligations. I welcome that all concerned countries continue to fulfil their obligations, but call for swift and enhanced efforts to continue curbing irregular migration, and fighting corruption and organized crime.”
The report follows the Commission’s previous recommendations of December 2017, takes stock of the measures implemented, by the concerned countries in the past year.
Both in 2017 and 2018 the report estimates that there was some progress made regarding irregular (including illegal) from the eight concerned countries.
Irregular immigration from Ukraine continues to be relatively high. Between 2016 and 2017, the refusals of entry increased by 47% (from 22,495 to 33,105).
The Number of Ukrainians found to be illegally residing in the EU also went up by 13% (to 33,485 in 2017 from 29,570 in 2016).
“According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency data, the trends between the first half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 indicate a considerable increase in the number of refusals of entry and no increase in illegal stay.”
In the first half of 2018, the number of asylum applications went down by 9% to 4,710, compared to the same period in 2017, which had 5,280 applicants.
Cooperation on readmission and return is also functioning and should be continued. The return rate is stable at 79% for 2017, with 25,330 Ukrainian nationals effectively returned in 2017.
“Integrated border management remains a challenge and inter-agency cooperation is still insufficient. A mid-term evaluation of the current strategy for integrated border management was completed and the drafting of a new strategy 2020-2025 and action plan is envisaged by spring 2019. Ukraine implemented a state-wide information campaign to explain the rights and obligations of the visa-free regime.”
In terms of internal public order and security, the report claimed that Ukraine still remains a transit country for various illicit commodities trafficked to the EU. Ukrainian organized crime groups also continue to take part in excise fraud, particularly in the production and smuggling of illegal tobacco products in the EU. There needs to be more attention focused on active smuggling groups operated by Ukrainian nationals from Turkey and Greece via the Western Balkan route. Furthermore, there is an issue with cybercriminals with Ukrainian nationality, notably Russian-speaking ones, who are increasingly involved in sophisticated operations within the digital underground.
The report claims that “Ukraine has taken some actions identified in the First Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism.” However, some actions remain outstanding. Anti-corruption judges have been selected, but they have no sufficient access to information.
Ukraine has also failed to revoke the legislative amendments from March 2017, extending the scope of asset declaration obligation to anti-corruption activists.
The continued attacks over the past year against civil society exposing corruption are also cause for concern. There is little, if any progress in the investigation in these attacks.
“The anti-corruption institutions National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecution continue to be operational but concerns relating to their effectiveness and independence have not been addressed. The pending audit of National Anti-Corruption Bureau raises concerns due to the politically driven appointment of auditors, which threatens to undermine the Bureau’s leadership. It has still not been granted independent access to wire-tapping. Its ability to conduct effective investigations into complex corruption cases is hampered by the failure of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention to grant direct and automated access to its database of asset declarations, as well as by the shortened time-limits for criminal investigations (introduced in 2017 and reinforced in September 2018).”
Overall, according to the report, Ukraine is making some progress, but there are still many actions that need to be undertaken.
The areas that the Ukrainian government needs to address are the following:
- Strengthen the operational cooperation with concerned countries to swiftly decrease the irregular migration by Ukrainian nationals to the Schengen+ area;
- Continue to organize information campaigns on the rights and obligations of visa-free travel;
- Urgently repeal the amendments extending the scope of asset declarations to civil society and ensure that civil society can play its role without undue interference;
- Ensure the independence, effectiveness and sustainability of the anti-corruption institutional framework, including by ensuring that the High Anti-Corruption Court swiftly becomes fully operational and that the Public Council of International Experts can adequately play its role in the selection process;
- Re-establish the independence and credibility of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecution;
- Establish a fully functioning system for the verification of asset declarations, notably by ensuring automated access to all remaining registers and databases, in order to produce a convincing track-record of effectively verified declarations;
- Reinforce the capacities of the National Police and improve the cooperation between law enforcement agencies to further tackle organized crime, in particular cybercrime.
Essentially, Ukraine appears to have made no progress since 2016, and has maybe even deteriorated in terms of irregular immigration and the fight against corruption and organized crime. With the implementation of anti-corruption bodies and other mechanisms being only formal.