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EU: Outgoing Commissioner Urges Tighter Immigration Policy

The outgoing European commissioner for justice and home affairs, Antonio Vitorino, yesterday said EU member states must do more to coordinate their immigration and asylum policies. He also called for a greater acceptance of the need for economic migrants, while rejecting criticism from human rights organizations that the EU often shuns genuine political refugees and treats asylum seekers badly. Vitorino also endorsed recent attempts by some EU member states to forge ahead with cooperation in counterterrorism and related fields without waiting for others to catch up.

Brussels, 3 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Assessing the record of the outgoing European Commission on immigration and asylum over the past five years, the commissioner responsible, Antonio Vitorino, yesterday called for a tighter EU immigration and asylum policy.

The current commission -- the EU's executive body -- will step down in October.

First, Vitorino said, the member states must do more to coordinate their policies. He said a lot has been achieved. In the field of asylum policy, there now are EU rules for the equal treatment of non-EU legal residents and a common minimum standard for their protection.
"There is an enormous pressure and significant abuse on the asylum system."

But, equally clearly, Vitorino said that more needs to be done to tighten the bloc's external borders and streamline procedures for combating illegal immigration.

Responding to criticism from the Amnesty International human rights watchdog, timed to coincide with his presentation yesterday, Vitorino made it clear there is very little political will within the EU to open its doors any wider to immigration.

Amnesty accuses the EU of displaying little regard for illegal immigrants, and of confusing asylum procedures with the fight against terrorism. In short, Amnesty says, EU immigration policies largely ignore the human rights dimension.

In his response, Vitorino clearly indicated the need to fight abuse of the EU's asylum system comes first.

"There is an enormous pressure and significant abuse on the asylum system. So, being more rigorous, being more efficient in managing [the EU] asylum system, means giving protection to those who are really in need and separating those who are trying to abuse the asylum system. And this is something that Amnesty International should take into consideration. Because this is the best way to protect the real [immigrants] who are in need of international protection -- keeping the credibility of the system, and we cannot be complacent with abuses of the asylum system," Vitorino said.

Vitorino added that he agrees that asylum procedures are the "weakest link in the chain." But he challenged Amnesty and other human rights organizations to look at other elements -- where he said there is "added value" for immigrants. Vitorino said moves to harmonize asylum and immigration policies are "the first step" of a long process, adding that it is normal at this stage that occasionally rights disputes are taken to court.

Setting out an agenda for the future, Vitorino was most concerned that the member states agree on a uniform refugee status, with a joint procedure for granting as well as withdrawing it.

As regards immigration, Vitorino's key recommendation is that EU member states find a "balanced way" for legally admitting economic migrants, which he says is needed to help the bloc cope with its aging population. The fight against illegal immigration is another priority, as is that against trafficking in human beings.

But, Vitorino acknowledged, common EU action in agreeing to controlled immigration or joint management of the external borders remains difficult, as it touches upon sensitive issues to do with sovereignty.

Conversely, Vitorino said, confirming the assessments of numerous EU officials and politicians in recent months, the bomb attacks on Madrid have brought about a sea change in the fight against terrorism. Member states have since become much keener on harmonizing criminal law, and there's widespread acceptance that the EU needs its own prosecutor-general.

Vitorino yesterday praised a recent initiative involving Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium to strengthen police cooperation.

He said he hopes other EU member states will join the initiative, adding that the commission will soon unveil a series of related legislative proposals.

"We will bring forward a [proposal] in very few weeks, where we will propose an [EU] decision [to be endorsed by the member states], on cross-border cooperation, including dealing with the very sensitive issue of 'hot pursuit' [of criminals from one member state into another]. This is one of the key issues raised by the document [adopted] by the five ministers last Friday [28 May]. At the same time, we will also bring forward some proposals concerning a passenger name record system at the European level and [a] system of exchanging intelligence in the fight against terrorism, including databases that can go up to the very sensitive issue of DNA," Vitorino said.

Vitorino said the commission will soon also present a blueprint for joint EU rules for the protection of the privacy of personal data used in the fight against terrorism and crime in general.