Q&A: EU immigration policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Oct 14 21:22:57 UTC 2008

Q&A: EU immigration policy
Large-scale immigration to the European Union has highlighted big
differences in the way the 27 member states handle newcomers from
non-EU countries.

The impetus for new EU-wide rules is fuelled by: the pace of
globalisation; the need to attract more high-skilled workers as
Europe's population ages and businesses struggle to compete; and an
influx of illegal immigrants to Mediterranean countries.

This week European leaders are expected to sign up to an immigration
pact, paving the way for new laws to harmonise immigration policy in
the EU. Yet it is an area where governments are often keen to retain a
high degree of national control.

Is the EU failing to cope with illegal immigrants?

There are some real pressure points in the Mediterranean. Spain, Italy
and Greece are struggling to manage large flows of illegal immigrants
from developing countries, some of whom have grounds for claiming

The influx is a concern for other EU countries, as many illegal
immigrants end up seeking work further north, in France and the UK,
for example. There are an estimated eight million illegal immigrants
in the EU, half of whom came in legally but overstayed.

This year, EU patrol boats have stopped more than 20,000 people trying
to cross the Mediterranean from Africa, with record numbers reaching
Malta and Sicily. Boatloads of African migrants continue to make the
perilous journey to the Canary Islands, putting Spain's reception
centres there under great strain.

Another area of concern is the EU's eastern border with the former
Soviet Union. Despite enhanced border security, people traffickers
regularly smuggle in migrants from the former Soviet Union and Asian
countries, most of them fleeing poverty, but some also fleeing
conflict and persecution.

Border checks are often minimal in the 24-nation Schengen zone, where
passport-free travel is allowed.

Sweden says it received about 18,000 Iraqi asylum seekers in 2007 -
more than half the total that entered the EU last year. Sweden has a
well-established Iraqi community, but says other EU countries should
take in a bigger share of Iraqis, who have mostly fled violence and

Italy's new right-wing government has launched a high-profile
crackdown on illegal immigrants, mainly targeting Roma (Gypsies)
living in squalid camps on the outskirts of major cities. Some of the
measures - like fingerprinting children - have been strongly
criticised at the EU.

How will the immigration pact change things?

The pact itself will have political rather than legal force - but
related EU directives are likely to enshrine some of the principles in

 Eight ex-communist bloc countries joined Schengen in December 2007

The pact says the EU "does not have the resources to decently receive
all the migrants hoping to find a better life here".

It says it is "imperative that each member state take account of its
partners' interests when designing and implementing its immigration,
integration and asylum policies".

It will make it harder for member states to grant mass amnesties for
illegal migrants. In 2005 Spain granted an amnesty for about 700,000
illegal immigrants. By filling many jobs that Spaniards were unable or
unwilling to take, migrants contributed to Spain's economic boom -
before it was derailed by the credit crunch. But Spain's move was
criticised by some of its neighbours, notably France. The new pact
calls for "case-by-case regularisation, rather than generalised

The pact says illegal immigrants must return to their countries of
origin or to a country of transit. To that end, EU co-operation with
those countries is to be enhanced, including strengthening of border

The pact contains a pledge to beef up the EU's new border control
agency Frontex, which has been hampered by insufficient resources.

What new measures are envisaged for illegal immigrants?

A "return" directive has been approved by the European Parliament and
is expected to become law in two years' time.

It will apply across the EU, except in the UK and Ireland, which have
not opted in to this area of Community law. The UK government does not
believe the directive will make returning illegal immigrants any

The EU legislation will apply only once a decision has been taken to
deport an illegal immigrant - it is still up to each member state to
decide whether it wishes to accept or deport the immigrant.

The deportation decision will be immediately followed by a voluntary
departure period of up to 30 days maximum.

If the immigrant then refuses to leave, a removal order will be
issued. If there is a risk the immigrant might abscond, the person can
be detained. The maximum period of custody will be six months, which
can be extended by a further 12 months in certain cases, if the
immigrant fails to co-operate.

Member states can impose a re-entry ban of five years maximum if the
person is deported after the voluntary return period has expired.

At present, detention periods for illegal immigrants vary widely
across the EU. In the UK and six other countries detainees can be held
indefinitely. The maximum in France is 32 days, in Latvia it is 20

The "return" directive sets out safeguards for the return of
unaccompanied children, prioritising "the best interests of the

Detainees will also have the rights to appeal against deportation, to
see legal advisers, family members and get medical attention.

Are there any objections to this change in policy?

The UK government is among critics of the directive who say it will
make returning illegal immigrants more difficult, by setting
restrictions on detention and giving detainees more power to challenge

Amnesty International is among the critics who say the "return"
directive should provide more human rights safeguards. It argues that
detention "should only be used in very exceptional cases" and protests
that the directive "will allow EU countries to detain people who have
not committed any crime, including minors, for up to one year and a

France, current holder of the EU presidency, wanted the immigration
pact to include "immigration contracts", obliging migrants to pass
language and culture tests in the host country, but that idea was
scrapped under Spanish pressure.

Some South American leaders have condemned the pact, with Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez threatening to cut off oil exports to the EU if
it is adopted. South American countries, which took in many European
migrants in the past, now provide many workers for the EU, especially

What will change for asylum seekers?

The EU aims to establish a Common European Asylum System. Currently
the degree of protection afforded asylum seekers varies widely across
the EU.

European leaders want the European Commission to present proposals by
2012 at the latest for setting up a single asylum procedure, with
common guarantees.

Great emphasis is being placed on the "solidarity" principle to ease
the burden faced by some EU countries: the EU plans to make it easier
to reallocate asylum seekers geographically, working with the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees.

How does the EU plan to attract more high-skilled workers?

The European Commission has highlighted the EU's need for high-skilled
workers and hopes a "Blue Card" scheme will help solve the problem.

Many European enterprises complain that they cannot fill job
vacancies. The EU's long-term demographic trend threatens to make the
situation worse, because birth rates are generally low and ageing
populations will create more gaps in the labour market.

In the EU's total employed population, 1.7% are highly qualified
workers from non-EU countries. By comparison, that category of
immigrants forms 9.9% in Australia, 7.3% in Canada and 3.2% in the US.

The EU Blue Card is aimed to rival the US Green Card in attracting
much-needed high-skilled workers to the EU, such as computer engineers
and nurses.

The card would give holders equal treatment to nationals in many areas
and make it easier for them to bring their families over. Subject to
certain conditions, they would be able to move to a second EU member
state after two years' legal residence in the first state.

But there are still disagreements about which qualifications are to be
included and how much the immigrants should earn. It has been argued
that to qualify for a card, an immigrant should have been offered a
job with 1.5 times the average salary in the country concerned.

Germany and Austria have not yet lifted restrictions on workers from
the new EU member states - and the Czech Republic says the card should
not be introduced until that happens, which could be as late as 2011.

Story from BBC NEWS:

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