Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

EUROPE: No Asylum, Now Go To Jail

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jun 6 2008 (IPS) - Asylum-seekers whose bid to live in the European Union has been rejected could be detained for up to 18 months under a new law approved by the bloc’s 27 governments.

The so-called returns directive sets common rules across the Union for the treatment of failed asylum-seekers prior to their expulsion from EU territory. Its most controversial provision is that it allows for those awaiting deportation to be locked up for a maximum of 18 months.

Human rights activists fear that people who have not committed any offence will be routinely held for lengthy periods as a result.

The law was rubber-stamped by the EU’s justice and interior ministers at a Jun. 5-6 meeting. However, it will have to be endorsed by the European Parliament, the bloc’s only directly elected institution, before it can come into effect. Members of the Parliament (MEPs) are due to decide what stance to take on it Jun. 18.

Dragutin Mate, interior minister of Slovenia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, argued this week that the possible rejection of the directive by the Parliament was a “black scenario” that would seriously delay efforts to draw up common rules in this legislative area.

More than 220 camps for detaining asylum-seekers are currently in operation across the EU; in total, they have a capacity for holding 30,000 people. While many EU countries allow for detention of between 12 and 18 months, some states such as Britain, the Netherlands, Greece and Denmark stipulate no maximum length of detention. In Malta, many asylum-seekers were found to have been held for five years, according to a 2006 study.


Steve Peers, professor at the human rights centre at Britain’s University of Exeter, said that MEPs are confronted by a conundrum. Should they accept the directive in its current form, there is a risk that EU countries offering the highest standards of protection to asylum seekers will dilute those standards. Yet if they try to introduce amendments to the law, there is a risk that they will not be considered seriously by France, which will assume the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July.

The discussions over the law are taking place at a time of acute prejudice against asylum-seekers in several EU countries. Italy’s new right-wing government, for example, has been considering the possibility of turning clandestine immigration into a criminal offence.

“MEPs face a difficult choice between two alternative courses, neither of which would ensure sufficient protection for the basic principles that should underpin EU immigration and asylum law,” said Peers. “The fundamental problem with the deal on the returns directive is that they should never have been forced to make such an invidious choice in the first place.”

Amnesty International has described the possibility that 18 months detention will become common as “shocking”.

The organisation has argued that it is vital any detention that occurs should be exceptional, rather than the rule. And although EU governments and the European Commission have agreed that child asylum-seekers unaccompanied by adults cannot be deported, Amnesty is also seeking guarantees that children who have been separated from their parents will not be detained either. Furthermore, it is perturbed by clauses in the law that would forbid deportees from re-entering EU territory.

According to Amnesty, the use of entry bans is a “blunt instrument” which could result in those fleeing persecution in the future being denied any support from EU governments.

Nicholas Berger, head of Amnesty’s Brussels office, has urged MEPs not to back a compromise that was brokered between representatives of the Parliament and of EU governments ahead of this week’s meeting of justice and interior ministers.

“By accepting this compromise text, the European Parliament will undermine its own mandate to protect human rights and allow EU law to erode existing international human rights standards,” he said.

The European Council on Refugees and Exile (ECRE), an alliance of organisations working with asylum-seekers, said that the principle of voluntary returns should be favoured over forced expulsions. “We need a directive on returns, but not at all costs,” said Bjarte Vandvik, ECRE’s secretary-general. “We are particularly concerned about the excessive detention periods in this directive and the lack of real opportunities for migrants to leave of their own accord before being removed by force.”

Some left-leaning MEPs have indicated that they intend to vote against the proposed directive.

Jean Lambert, a London Green MEP, has said that the directive would “set in stone” some of the most repressive practises already resorted to by EU governments.

For its part, the European Commission has broadly welcomed the directive. But Jacques Barrot, the commissioner for justice, said this week that his officials will be vigilant in monitoring that the rights of children are upheld when the law is being enforced.

 
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