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EU: Common Repatriation Policy For Illegal Residents In The Works

In Brussels today, the European Commission will for the first time discuss European Union-wide legislation on the ejection of illegal immigrants. Representatives from all EU member states and some candidate countries will join immigration experts and various international organizations to talk about the new measures. Presenting the initiative yesterday (15 July), Commission officials said a common EU policy on the return of illegal residents is a vital part of the member states' drive to harmonize their immigration and asylum policies.

Brussels, 16 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is quickly building on decisions made at last month's Seville summit to harmonize the member states' asylum and immigration policies.

The European Commission, which has the right to initiate EU legislation, has already presented member states with draft laws on curbing illegal immigration, managing legal immigration, and coordinating the bloc's diverse asylum policies.

Spurred on by security concerns in the wake of 11 September and recent right-wing electoral gains in a number of EU countries, the commission is now preparing what its officials describe as a vital missing link -- common legislation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

Anticipating the controversial nature of such measures, the commission has decided to launch a wider debate on the issue, asking for input from not only European civil society, but also countries of origin of illegal immigrants, destination countries, and international and nongovernmental organizations.

Today marks the first "hearing" organized for what the commission's justice and home affairs spokesman Leonello Gabrici describes as the "stakeholders" in the issue. Participants at the closed Brussels conference hail from the commission, EU member states, the Czech Republic, Turkey, the United States, and Canada, as well as a number of so-called immigrant "countries of origin." Organizations such as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Center for Migration Policy, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch will also take part.

Christian Klos, an official with the European Commission's directorate of home affairs who chairs one of the sessions, says forging a common return policy on illegal immigrants is a vital part of harmonizing relevant EU legislation: "We have taken the position that a return policy is a normal element of migration management. Even the most liberal admissions policy will have a component which makes it necessary to think about [the] return of those people who have no legal status under [any] legal perspective, either on a permanent or a temporary basis, or for whom a member state has no legal obligation to tolerate their residence."

Spokesman Gabrici notes that EU measures on legal and illegal immigration are inextricably linked. He says most illegal immigrants arrive in the EU legally, on tourist or student visas or work permits, and their status only becomes illegal when their permits run out. He says the number of repatriations from the EU has so far been "very, very low" compared to the number of illegal residents. He adds that so far it has been very difficult to address the issue at an EU-wide level, because "each member state has been working on its own."

Christian Klos says today's conference will look at three core issues -- why a return policy is needed as an integral part of the EU's common immigration policy, how minimum standards for return procedures could be established, and how the "sensitive issues" of both detention and removal of illegal residents should be jointly handled.

Klos says there is a "lot of room" for common standards in the EU. He adds that although "wide differences" exist in the legal situations from state to state, the problems are often quite similar. One example Klos cites is the duration of detention periods for illegal immigrants. Some EU member states allow detention for 12 days pending removal. Others have no legal limit. In the rest, detention can last anywhere from "a couple of months" to a year and a half.

Klos acknowledges that the repatriation of illegal immigrants is closely linked to human rights issues.

He says the European Commission is aware of incidents of mistreatment in some member states that have resulted in the death of a deportee. Therefore, he says, today's hearing will largely concentrate on establishing common standards such as the "use of restraints, and other coercive measures in the course of forced return."

At the same time, Klos says, attention will be given to voluntary return. He says the EU and some international organizations already sponsor programs funding return trips for illegal residents who willingly leave the EU.

The commission's drive toward harmonization is often hampered by what is seen as complacency among the member states. Spokesman Leonello Gabrici admits a number of EU member states appear to tacitly accept illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labor.

He says this is one thing the commission's proposals will change: "We don't know whether it is done on purpose, but we want to end this thing. It is directly linked to our legal immigration proposals. The legal immigration proposal says that a person who stays here [in the EU] legally should be treated exactly like a European with the same, or equivalent, or comparable, duties and obligations."

However, the data the commission has on the presence of illegal immigrants in EU member states is sketchy at best. It is estimated there could be around 3 million illegal residents in the bloc, but the commission is unable to either confirm or deny this figure.

Even the repatriation figures the commission has are problematic. According to Klos, around 88,000 illegal immigrants left the EU voluntarily in 2000, compared to 78,000 a year before. The figures, however, are collated not by the EU, but by the International Organization for Migration.

When it comes to forced return, 367,000 illegal residents reportedly left the EU in 2000, compared to 324,000 in 1999.

The one area where quick progress has been made is in tracking asylum seekers across the EU. A fingerprinting system called EURODAC has already been approved by member states and an EU-wide database of asylum-seekers' fingerprints is being set up.

Klos and Gabrici say the commission hopes to have common EU rules on the repatriation of illegal immigrants -- together with the gathering of reliable statistics -- adopted by the end of the year.