EU reaches key deal on return of illegal immigrants
The agreement caps three years of wrangling among member states.
Luxembourg -- European Union governments agreed Thursday on a long-awaited common set of rules governing the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants.
The Return Directive approved by EU interior ministers in Luxembourg "provides for common standards and return procedures as well as clear, transparent and fair common rules," EU officials said.
"It takes into full account the respect for human rights and the fundamental freedoms of the persons concerned," they added.
The agreement caps three years of wrangling among member states. It must now be endorsed by the European Parliament in a vote scheduled to take place on June 18.
Slovenian Interior Minister Dragutin Mate, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said a meeting with parliamentary rapporteurs had made him confident that the latest draft of the directive would be backed by a majority of lawmakers.
"Thanks to this directive, returning those we want to get rid of will be easier in the future," German Secretary of State Peter Altmaier said.
The Return Directive limits to six months the period over which illegal immigrants can be detained by the authorities of member states.
But it has been criticized by civil rights groups because it allows the authorities to extend the maximum detention period by a further 12 months in special cases.
Commissioner Jacques Barrot, the EU's top justice official, said such extensions would normally be limited to six months and would only be allowed in "exceptional" circumstances.
He also noted that as many as nine EU member states currently set no detention limits at all.
The directive also regulates the deportation of illegal migrants to their country of origin and clarifies rules on the access by non- governmental organizations to EU detention centers.
Once expelled, illegal immigrants will not be allowed back into the EU for five years. Such rules do not affect asylum seekers.
One of the biggest stumbling blocs to the directive's adoption came from a provision compelling member states to provide free legal aid to immigrants wishing to appeal their deportation.
Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Lithuania and the Czech Republic were among those to complain that the measure would prove too costly, prompting the European Commission to announce that it would make EU funds available to those member states that need them the most.
"For those member states who might have difficulty in providing such legal aid, it is important that we can provide them financial assistance on a case-by-case basis. That made it possible for member states to withdraw their final reservations," Barrot said.
The commissioner said that member states, which fail to provide free legal aid would be taken to court.
He also noted that the directive provides important provisions for the wellbeing of children. It will no longer be possible to detain or deport unaccompanied minors.
The debate on the Return Directive comes at a sensitive time for Europe, with some governments seeking to crack down on the seemingly unstoppable inflow of migrants from Africa and Asia.
In Italy, where an estimated 100,000 migrants are thought to enter the country each year, the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is debating whether to make illegal immigration a crime.