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Europe

EU Backs Controversial Rules for Expelling Illegal Migrants

EU lawmakers voted Wednesday, June 18, for a new set of common rules for expelling illegal immigrants from the 27-nation bloc despite widespread criticism by human rights groups.

Illegal immigrants who were caught and arrested off the Canary Islands

The EU is hoping to deter future immigrants to take the illegal path to the bloc

EU lawmakers approved the law which allows illegal immigrants to be detained for up to 18 months despite vocal opposition from rights groups and socialists, greens and other lawmakers in the European Parliament.

The measures were adopted in Strasbourg by 367 votes to 206 with 109 abstentions.

The proposed law had been the topic of debate for over three years and edged closer to the final hurdle earlier this month when European Union interior ministers agreed on measures to allow detention without trial and introduce an automatic re-entry ban of up to five years for illegal immigrants.

European Commission estimates say there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the bloc. More than 200,000 were arrested in the first half of 2007 but less than 90,000 were eventually expelled. Supporters say that the law is needed to make the bloc's migration policies credible, a stance backed by conservative and liberal lawmakers.

"It's a decisive step towards a necessary common policy on immigration, an essential legal instrument to safeguard fundamental rights for immigrants," said Spanish conservative Agustin Diaz de Mera Garcia.

Critics demand a reduced detention period

While conservatives and liberals supported the controversial law in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday, giving the text a theoretical majority, socialists, greens and a communist-led groups voiced concern over the measures and demanded a reduction of the detention length. The 18-month limit is higher than the maximum detention in two-thirds of the 27 EU states.

Illegal immigrants line up to request residency permits, in Lisbon

Illegals will be detained in special centers -- not jails

Currently, illegal migrants cannot be detained for more than 40 days in Spain and a year in Hungary, according to European Commission data. Germany already has an 18-month detention cap, while eight EU countries, who have higher caps or none at all would need to introduce the new EU limit.

Meanwhile, human rights groups called for the complete scrapping of the proposal.

The draft guidelines which were agreed ahead of the vote say that illegal immigrants in the 27 member countries can be held in specialized detention centers -- not jails -- for no more than 18 months before being expelled from the bloc.

The guidelines grant them basic rights including access to free legal advice, food and shelter, and prohibit the expulsion or detention of unaccompanied children.

Children to be detained under proposed law

However, the law does allow children to be detained alongside parents and guardians while saying that should be for the shortest appropriate period of time.

An African family waits outside Paris City Hall during a gathering of illegal immigrants

Critics say that Europe is shutting itself down

"This directive is a disgrace, it's an insult to civilization in Europe," said Italian left-winger Giusto Catania, saying illegal migrants should not be detained for 18 months without having committed a crime.

"We are building a Europe which is shutting down on itself," said fellow socialist Martine Roure, urging the bloc to take steps to facilitate legal migration.

Amnesty International's Secretary General, Irene Khan, had urged lawmakers to reject the text. "The proposed directive is unacceptable as an EU standard," she said in a statement. "Detention should only be used in very exceptional cases, always for the shortest possible time."

However, the possibility of the proposal being dragged out for an even longer time could convince some of those who are undecided. Slovenia's interior minister Dragutin Mate had warned lawmakers that if they rejected the text it would take several more years to reach an agreement.

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