European Union approves tough immigration rules

According to a new law approved by the European Union countries, illegal immigrants could be detained for up to 18 months and face a five-year ban from EU countries if they refuse an order to leave.


European Union nations on Thursday approved tough new rules on expelling visa-overstayers which could see them banned for five years if they resist, the EU's Slovenian presidency announced.

The new measures will oblige authorities in EU nations to choose between issuing residency or other permits to illegal immigrants from outside the bloc or returning them to their countries of origin.

The agreement, sealed by EU interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg and expected to be passed by the European Parliament in two weeks, immediately raised human rights concerns, particularly for those who might be detained.

Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot urged the ministers to ensure that rights are protected in line with the UN and European charters, and that he would visit detention centres to ensure that this was happening.

"The commission will be watching this aspect very closely," he said.

The measures will mainly target people whom Europeans rarely suspect are breaking the law: visa overstayers, estimated at some 12 million people -- the biggest category of illegal immigrants in the 27 nation bloc.

These illegals are often Filipinos, nationals from China and Ukraine or Latin American and African states, however they can include US citizens, people from Japan and others.

They enter Europe on a tourist visa, become reasonably well integrated and work on the black market, perhaps as cleaners or child minders for families, or in industry as labourers and restaurant staff.

The new rules will not focus on would-be asylum seekers who disembark on the shores of Italy, France, Malta or Spain after dangerous sea journeys from northern Africa.

Under the measures, an illegal immigrant has two options: "return" home or face "removal."

Should he or she -- and these steps also involve children -- decline both options and resist, the individual would be forced to leave and face being banned from EU territory for five years.

As far as forced expulsions are concerned, authorities could decide to keep individuals in custody for up to six months -- 18 months under exceptional circumstances -- particularly if they are deemed likely to run away.

This could also happen if their home countries are slow to provide documents.

If the parliament signs off on the agreement -- which is likely but not guaranteed -- the measures could come into effect by 2010.

"We will not support widescale entry bans, return to countries of transit and lengthy detention periods," Green member of the European Parliament Jean Lambert said in a statement.

"These are abuses of human dignity and human rights that we consistently oppose in our member states and do not want to see entrenched at the EU level."

The agreement had been held up by a group of countries led by Germany which baulked at any language in the document which would oblige it to provide legal aid to such illegal immigrants.

One EU diplomat said that such countries are reluctant to agree to something that could increase justice spending at a time when European economies are under pressure.

"Given the economic turmoil, there's a real wariness to change anything that would affect the legal aid bill too much," he said, on condition of anonymity.

The measures could be incorporated into a sweeping new EU "immigration pact" which France is preparing to unveil in July when it takes over the bloc's rotating presidency for six months.

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