April 30, 2008; Immigrants’ Rights Deal Wins Few Fans

Immigrants' rights deal wins few fans
Human rights watchdogs say deal falls short; French president eyes pact on illegal immigration.

By Jim Brunsden
30.04.2008 / 00:00 CET

An agreement reached on 23 April signals the end of the long-running negotiation on common EU rules for the return of illegal immigrants. Although this has been a priority issue since the original proposals were presented by the Commission in September 2005, none of the successive EU presidencies was able to find a formula.

But last week's deal between the Slovenian presidency of the EU and MEPs has generated little enthusiasm among those involved in its negotiation, provoking questions over why the legislation is considered necessary and where it fits in with the future development of the EU's common immigration policy.

The return directive's purpose is to build on existing European co-operation on expulsion, including a 2001 agreement on the mutual recognition of expulsion decisions and procedures drawn up in April 2004 for joint flights for removals. Once finalised, it will oblige member states to follow a set of common deportation procedures for illegal immigrants, including failed asylum seekers.

Part of the reason that the Parliament and Council have found it so hard to reach agreement is that the Commission's proposal had a far broader scope than many member states wanted. In particular, it sought to enshrine in EU law rights for immigrants that many states feared would slow down the deportation process, or place extra burdens on national authorities. One example was a right for immigrants held in detention to have their case reviewed by a judge, to rule whether custody was justified. France was among those which argued that this should be left to national law. The European Parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, however, was keen to increase the rights granted by the proposal.

Socialist opposition

The result is that the version of the directive now agreed has satisfied almost no-one. The Socialist group's lead MEP on the dossier, Martine Roure, has rejected the compromise, stating that her group has serious reservations on numerous aspects of the text, notably that member states will be allowed to keep immigrants in detention centres for up to 18 months under certain circumstances. Among the groups which support the deal, notably the large centre-right EPP-ED group and the liberal ALDE group, a frequent justification is that there was a need to secure a deal quickly, owing to indications from France that it would not be a priority for its presidency of the EU, which starts on 1 July.

NGOs are not impressed. Simone Troller of Human Rights Watch says that when it comes to immigrants' rights, we have seen a lot of precise language being watered down in the process. She is particularly concerned that the draft falls short of member states' obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Bjarte Vandvik, the secretary-general of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, opposes the draft agreement's creation of an EU-wide re-entry ban, which would prohibit deportees who refused to leave Europe voluntarily from returning for up to five years. His argument is that entry bans make it very difficult to ensure in practice the right to international protection, because a previously-failed asylum-seeker, banned from returning to Europe, may in future genuinely need to flee from persecution. The bans could be also an obstacle to family reunification with family members residing in EU member states, he says.

Member states will also have to swallow some unwelcome concessions, once the agreement is formally adopted as law notably an arrangement that immigrants will be given a minimum of one week to leave a country voluntarily before procedures are initiated to remove them by force. Germany, France and Spain had all opposed the inclusion of such a provision.


This reluctance reinforces the view that EU policy on illegal immigration will be guided increasingly by a focus on member states' responsibilities for border protection and expulsion, rather than on creating rights. Borders and expulsion form major themes of the European Pact on Immigration, proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he expects to see agreed during his country's six-month EU presidency. His vision is to see border protection and expulsion feature alongside other commitments on stronger border control and burden-sharing of asylum- seekers.

The deal reached on the return directive solves a headache for Sarkozy, by clearing up debate on a proposal which contained elements he did not wish to see addressed at European level. Parliament would otherwise have pressured him to pursue the debate, but he is now free to concentrate on his priorities.

The agreement on the directive will be confirmed and adopted by the time he takes over the EU helm. The Slovenian Presidency will formally present the deal to member states' ambassadors at a meeting on 7 May, where it is expected to secure qualified majority support. The deal is also expected to secure a majority when it is put to MEPs in a vote on 4-5 June.