E.U. Moves to Standardize Immigrant Policy

Willy Meyer Pleite, a Spanish member of the European Parliament, holds his hand up to vote against the 'return directive' and shows a poster in favor of a 'No' vote Wednesday June 18, 2008 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg eastern France. The European Parliament has overcame opposition from left-leaning lawmakers to rubber stamp a new set of common rules for expelling illegal immigrants from the 27-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Christian Lutz)
Willy Meyer Pleite, a Spanish member of the European Parliament, holds his hand up to vote against the 'return directive' and shows a poster in favor of a 'No' vote Wednesday June 18, 2008 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg eastern France. The European Parliament has overcame opposition from left-leaning lawmakers to rubber stamp a new set of common rules for expelling illegal immigrants from the 27-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Christian Lutz) (Christian Lutz - AP)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 19, 2008

PARIS, June 18 -- The European Parliament approved new rules Wednesday designed to standardize the dramatic differences in member countries' treatment of illegal immigrants, whose presence is one of the most heated political issues in Europe today.

The measure, which would allow countries to jail illegal immigrants for as long as 18 months pending deportation, was decried by human rights organizations as promoting excessive detention. Supporters defended it as providing greater protections for the foreigners in countries that now permit indefinite detentions and grant detainees few legal rights.

Rapidly changing demographics in Europe -- as Muslims arrive from the Middle East and Africa, and Eastern Europeans move west -- have resulted in bitter conflicts between immigrant and nationalist communities. In recent weeks, Romanian immigrants have become a special target of arrest and vigilante violence in Italy.

"The purpose of the legislation is to lay down E.U.-wide rules and procedure on the return of illegal immigrants," the European Parliament said in a statement issued after Wednesday's vote in Strasbourg, France. "Member states will be banned from applying harsher rules to illegal immigrants, but allowed to keep or adopt more generous rules."

The detention rules relate to people who fail to obey judicial orders to leave the country on their own and are then held for involuntary deportation. Current detention rules range from a maximum of 32 days in France and 20 months in Latvia to indefinite holding in Britain and six other European nations.

The human rights group Amnesty International criticized the policy, saying it does not guarantee that illegal immigrants would be returned to their home countries "in safety and dignity."

"On the contrary, an excessive period of detention of up to 1.5 years, as well as an EU-wide re-entry ban for those forcibly returned, risks lowering existing standards . . . and sets an extremely bad example," the organization said in a statement.

Opponents of the measure fear that countries with shorter detention periods will use the E.U. regulations to increase the amount of time they hold illegal immigrants. Italy, which has hardened its immigration policy under the new government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has already increased its detention times to the 18-month maximum in anticipation of approval of the new policy.

The measure passed by a vote of 369 to 197, with 106 abstentions, after lengthy debate and efforts to water it down.

E.U. justice ministers are scheduled to vote on the measure in a meeting next month, and analysts expect them to approve it, because they coordinated its terms with the European Parliament. Countries would then have two years to implement the rules. Britain and Ireland have opted not to take part.

The provisions allow illegal immigrants to be detained only if they fail to obey orders to leave a country voluntarily within as much as 30 days. The regulations allow a six-month detention "which can be extended by a further 12 months in certain cases." If the immigrants had not been deported by that point, they would have to be released.

The new rules also would give countries greater flexibility in declaring emergency situations if an "exceptionally large number" of illegal immigrants places "an unforeseen heavy burden" on a member state, allowing longer periods for judicial review and "less favorable conditions of detention," the parliamentary statement said.

The directive would allow states to ban an illegal immigrant who defies a voluntary deportation from reentering the country for as long as five years. The policy gives individual countries the right to "waive, cancel or suspend such bans."

During debate on the new policy, Jacques Barrot, the E.U. justice, freedom and security commissioner, said the legislation "gives priority to voluntary returns" and "protects the rights of children and families."

The regulations mandate that children and families "must not be subject to coercive measures and can only be held in custody as a last resort," the parliament said in its statement. But the measure allowed unaccompanied minors to be deported if they can be returned to their family or to "adequate reception facilities" in their home countries.

The measure provides for legal aid to be provided to illegal immigrants who have no resources. Countries that currently hold illegal immigrants in regular jails with people accused of crimes would have to create special immigrant detention facilities.


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