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EU: Brussels Launches Joint Surveillance Scheme For Asylum Seekers

As of today, every asylum seeker arriving in the European Union will be fingerprinted for the first-ever EU-wide database called Eurodac. EU officials say Eurodac will enable the bloc to confine the processing of asylum requests to the would-be immigrants' first points of entry. The database is also expected to put an end to the widespread abuse of the system, which sees many asylum seekers lodging applications in a number of member states.

Brussels, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Keeping track of asylum seekers in the European Union has never been easy. The bloc still lacks a coordinated policy on immigration, and no one is sure exactly how many people enter it legally or illegally.

Officials in Brussels are only able to deal in rough guesswork, putting the number of illegal immigrants at half a million a year, and the number of asylum claims at about 400,000 -- all of which are not necessarily submitted by people who have entered the EU illegally.

A lot of this could change if the EU's first-ever digital fingerprinting scheme for asylum seekers -- called Eurodac and brought online today -- takes off as intended. Every asylum seeker over the age of 14 will be fingerprinted and the results stored on a central computer in Brussels.

This is how Antonio Vitorino, the EU's commissioner in charge of immigration, described what is largely his own brainchild: "Eurodac is a database managed by the European Commission. It stores the fingerprints of all the asylum seekers, as well as the country of entry into the EU. The aim is to streamline the system for asylum requests throughout Europe."

The primary goal of Eurodac is to allow the EU member states to painlessly enforce the so-called Dublin Convention, which stipulates that all asylum claims must be processed by the country that is the applicant's first point of entry into the EU.

So far, in the absence of coordinated exchanges of information, determining this has often been a hotly contested business. The assumption now is that Eurodac will make such disputes a thing of the past -- every asylum seeker at large in the EU will be returned to the country where their fingerprints first appeared in the system.

Fingerprinting asylum seekers is already a widespread practice in the EU. What is new is the creation of a joint database. However, Eurodac will start from scratch, as member states with bigger collections of fingerprints fear they would appear to be the entry point of many current asylum seekers.

Denmark is the only EU country not to be part of the project, due to an opt-out clause it secured for immigration policy, whereas Norway and Iceland participate fully as the only non-EU members of the Schengen regime. European Commission officials yesterday said the data will not be shared with the United States.

Part of the rationale behind Eurodac is that it should make the asylum process immune to applicants who lodge simultaneous claims for refuge in more than one EU country. At present, EU officials say up to 20 percent of all claims could be duplicates, if not triplicates.

Jacques Mouchat, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said rooting out abuse would be a welcome contribution from Eurodac. "No doubt, there is some abuse. There are irregular movements of people who want to go from one country to another, and who are not always the people who need protection. These are rather complex migratory flows. And certainly, the Eurodac system is going to give us more efficient procedures to allow us to deal with requests quickly and efficiently so that the system can regain credibility and better protect the people who need protection," Mouchat said.

Also, Eurodac is relatively cheap. EU officials say it took 6.5 million euros to get the system up and running and that from now on each "transaction" -- that is, a fingerprint check -- will cost less than 3 euros. In comparison, the processing of each separate asylum claim costs from a few hundred to several thousand euros, depending on the member state.

European Commission officials reject criticism from some human rights activists who warn that Eurodac could be used against asylum seekers, or that data could be leaked to third parties, like their countries of origin. Officials say the use of the system is closely monitored by an independent body of experts. Also, Eurodac would not record any names, confining itself to identifying each applicant only by their fingerprints.

Eurodac does allow EU member states to fingerprint "illegals" not seeking asylum, but officials say this could only happen on the strict condition that the fingerprints are used to establish whether they have applied for asylum before, and that they would be deleted as soon as this purpose had been established.

EU officials do not deny that they have no guarantees that countries like Spain, Italy, or Greece will dutifully register each and every asylum seeker, as the lion's share of would-be immigrants enter the EU via their territory. However, it is likely that should Eurodac statistics conclusively prove that they bear an unfair share of the burden, they could be eligible for compensation.

The EU's 10 new member states will become full members of the Eurodac database on the day of their accession next year.