EU to beef up borders to keep immigrants, terrorists out

25th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

EU officials say they need to improve security at third-country borders.

Brdo, Slovenia (dpa) - The European Union is going ahead with its plans to beef up its external borders through the use of modern technology, in spite of criticism that it will violate the privacy of travellers, officials said Friday.

Franco Frattini, the EU's top justice official, told government ministers attending an informal meeting in Brdo, Slovenia, that they needed to improve the way they monitored third-country visitors to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering their territory. "Terrorism remains the number one threat," Frattini said.

The commissioner also said foreigners who enter the EU with a valid visa and then become illegal immigrants by overstaying their visit could "no longer be tolerated." Overstaying is the favourite method used by thousands of immigrants to enter the EU illegally each year, Frattini said.

High-tech initiatives in the EU pipeline include a European Passenger Name Record (PNR) and an electronic entry/exit register.

Modelled according to a similar system introduced by the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the European PNR would collect flight information about visitors, including ticket-billing details.

This information would then be shared out among the EU's 27 member states and their allies. Suspect travellers would be singled out and prevented from flying into the EU.

In order to address concerns from civil liberties advocates, the European Commission has vowed not divulge sensitive information about a visitor's ethnic origins or political and religious beliefs.

It has also promised to work in concert with the European Parliament, which acts as a sort of EU watchdog on behalf of its nearly 500 million citizens.

"I would be more than happy to address privacy protection issues, but I do not wish to explain to terrorists how to beat the system," Frattini said when asked to provide more details about his proposal.

Frattini was however willing to quote an example from the US, where he said officials had prevented a person from visiting the country thanks to information provided by their PNR. The person's fingerprints were later found on a bomb in Afghanistan, Frattini said.

During their meeting in Brdo, a castle outside the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, justice and interior ministers were also briefed by their colleagues from Britain, the first EU country to adopt such a scheme. Denmark and France are also considering setting up their own national PNR systems.

Slovenian Interior Minister Dragutin Mate, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said that while all member states accepted the need for a European-wide PNR, such a system was not likely to come into force until the first half of 2009.

Frattini also said he would soon be submitting plans for an electronic entry/exit register and an electronic travel authorisation (ETA).

Similar to one already in place in Australia, the European ETA would also include a traveller's biometric data, such as electronic photos and fingerprints.

Commission sources told DPA that Frattini planned to have the measures approved by the EU executive at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 13.

Designed primarily to stop illegal immigrants, these measures could be implemented during the second half of this year, Mate said.

Tracking down illegal immigrants and criminals has become an increasingly difficult task since December, when the EU expanded its borderless area to incorporate nine new countries, most of them from Eastern Europe.

While the recent expansion of the so-called Schengen area has been hailed as a success by Brussels officials, plans to make its shared database of suspects more efficient and more secure suffered a setback in Brdo, with governments asking for more time to test the new system.

The expanded Schengen area has also come under fire in Germany because of reports that hundreds of Chechen refugees who applied for asylum status in Poland have since crossed the border into Germany, which has strict asylum rules.

Frattini said the case showed that the EU needed a common asylum policy.

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