The EU Gets Tough on Illegal Immigrants

With or without an Irish "yes" vote, the process of European integration is proceeding apace. Just how it works is shown, for instance, by the cooperation of the EU states on refugee and asylum policy and the securing of the EU's external borders. Following relatively lengthy discussion and just in time for the European soccer championships, the EU interior ministers came to an agreement earlier this month on how best to get rid of people that are not wanted in the EU. The conditions for detaining persons awaiting deportation form a central part of the agreement. Last Wednesday, the EU parliament approved the new EU-wide guidelines by a vote of 369-197.

The so-called "return directive" principally affects asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected and illegal immigrants. For a variety of reasons, it is not always possible to deport such people immediately. The mere process of obtaining the documents necessary for re-entering their countries of origin can take months or even years. In order to maintain control over the deportees during this waiting period, many are held in detention centers. In Germany, the period of detention can be as long as 18 months. German authorities justify the length of detention by the risk that refugees will not otherwise fulfill their "obligation to cooperate." This "obligation to cooperate" means that the inmates are themselves held responsible for resolving the bureaucratic problems that might arise in their countries of origin.

In other EU countries, the maximum length of detention is substantially lower than in Germany: in Cyprus and France, for instance, it is 32 days and in Spain, 40 days. It is true that the new directive only establishes an upper limit to the length of detention: in theory, individual states can maintain their own more liberal arrangements. A lengthy period of detention could, however, quickly become the standard. For instance, after the Italian government announced some weeks ago that it would extend the usual period of detention to 18 months, the Spanish government complained that this would lead persons without legal residency to move to other countries out of fear.

Another point of contention in the negotiations was the issue of legal costs. In contrast to other countries, asylum candidates in Germany do not always receive financial assistance when they want to take legal steps to prevent their deportation. The German government wanted to preserve this policy, in order to avoid financial burdens and the burdening of the judicial system. On this point as well, Germany was able to have its way: according to the directive, states may provide financial assistance, but they are not obliged to do so.

For Karl Kopp, the EU policy expert of the German NGO Pro Asyl ["Pro Asylum"], this lack of legal protection represents one of the principal problems with the directive. "As a result many refugees will have no possibility whatsoever of making use of the few rights that they still have on paper," Kopp told this reporter. In the Eastern European countries in particular, he said, the system of legal protections is extremely deficient. If they are not able themselves to come up with the money, the persons affected will be essentially helpless for want of legal advice and mastery of the local language.

In Germany, even unpaid volunteers find it hard to provide assistance to refugees seeking to avoid deportation. In Ingolstadt, for example, members of aid organizations have no possibility of gaining access to the detainees.