The European Parliament on Wednesday approved controversial new rules for expelling illegal immigrants from the bloc, overcoming opposition from left-leaning lawmakers and ignoring protests from human rights activists.
The move comes amid a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment across the wealthy bloc, with Italy blaming foreigners for a spike in violent crime and France grappling with tensions in the immigrant-heavy suburbs ringing urban centers.
As economic hard times loom in many EU countries, governments are coming under increased pressure to act tough on immigration. Until now, there has been no common EU policy on expelling illegal immigrants, and detention periods varied from 32 days in France to indefinite custody in Britain, the Netherlands and five other countries.
Under the new guidelines, already approved by EU governments, illegal immigrants can be held in specialized detention centers for up to 18 months before being expelled. EU countries must provide detained migrants basic rights, including access to free legal advice, and unaccompanied children or families with children should be held only as a last resort.
Once found by authorities, immigrants first will be given the opportunity to leave voluntarily within 30 days. If there is a flight risk or they do not comply, they can be put in custody for up to six months while their deportation is processed.
5-year re-entry ban an option
A 12-month extension would be possible in specific cases, such as when illegal immigrants do not cooperate with authorities or when their identity must be verified with their home country. A re-entry ban of up to five years may be imposed on expelled immigrants who do not cooperate or are deemed a threat.
"We've got the best deal possible, given the differences" among countries, said Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the chamber.
Some Latin American countries have voiced concern that the new rules will lead to a flood of illegal workers returning home; the fears are partly rooted in the fact that their economies depend heavily on remittances from citizens working in Europe. But EU officials said the law itself will not lead to more deportations.
The agreement, approved 369-197 with 106 abstentions, took more than two years to draft, and EU nations will have two years to implement it. The new rules — part of efforts to create a common EU asylum and immigration policy by 2010 — will not automatically apply in Britain and Ireland because they are not members of the EU's borderless Schengen zone, and Denmark, which has negotiated an opt-out.
Many Socialists and Greens were against the law, arguing the maximum allowed detention period was too long and a re-entry ban not justified. But they were outvoted by conservative and liberal groups, which hailed the new rules as an improvement.
"By introducing minimum safeguards we limit possible excessive behavior by governments," said Dutch Liberal Democrat Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
She pointed out that in a number of countries, illegal immigrants await deportation in regular jails alongside convicted criminals — which will no longer be allowed under the new rules.
Amnesty International opposes
But Amnesty International condemned the deal, saying it does not guarantee the return of migrants in safety and dignity.
"An excessive period of detention of up to 1.5 years as well as an EU-wide re-entry ban for those forcibly returned risk lowering existing standards in the member states and set an extremely bad example to other regions in the world," the human rights watchdog said.
However, French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux rejected that criticism, saying that standards will not be lowered in his country and the 32-day custody period — the lowest in Europe — will not be changed.
The EU estimates there could be up to 8 million illegal immigrants in the 27-nation bloc.
France's Immigration Ministry estimates 200,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants in the country with a population of 63 million.
Spain, another country grappling with clandestine immigrants, said it was considering raising the maximum custody from the current 40 days to 60 — still far below the maximum allowed period.
Italy, which has toughened immigration policy under the new government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has already raised custody to the maximum limit in anticipation of the law.
France's Education Without Borders Network, the most active group working on behalf of illegal immigrants, said it feared more countries would now take similar measures. It condemned the law in an open letter signed by personalities, intellectuals and politicians.