Europe's hardening attitudes toward immigration found a voice in the EU Parliament on Wednesday, as legislators passed controversial new rules for expelling illegal immigrants amid a widening crackdown in the United States.
As the global economy slows, governments in rich countries are coming under increased pressure to act tough on immigration. While the European rules do not lay the groundwork for workplace raids like in America, they do contain contentious measures such as providing for long detention periods.
The wealthy European Union has seen a spike in tensions with immigrants: Italians blame foreigners for a rise in crime, France is grappling with violence in immigrant-heavy communities, and Belgium has come under criticism for its treatment of foreigners in detention centers.
The EU says the vast majority of the immigrants come to Europe from North Africa, former Soviet countries and the Balkans. For instance, 24,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants were caught trying to reach Spain in 2006 and 10,000 in 2007. Many set out in rickety boats – more than 1,000 African immigrants also are thought to have died at sea trying to reach Spain in 2007.
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Until now, there has been no common EU policy on expelling illegal immigrants, and detention periods varied from 32 days in France to indefinite custody in Britain, the Netherlands and five other countries.
Under the new guidelines, already approved by EU governments, illegal immigrants can be held in specialized detention centers – not jails – for up to 18 months before being expelled. But EU countries must provide detained migrants basic rights, including access to free legal advice, and unaccompanied children or families with children should be held only as a last resort.
Following apprehension, immigrants will be given the opportunity to leave voluntarily within 30 days. If there is a flight risk or they do not comply, they can be put in custody for up to six months while their deportation is processed.
“Europe has made it clear that it is not tolerating any form of illegal status,” said German Christian Democrat Manfred Weber, who steered the bill through Parliament.
The EU estimates there could be up to 8 million illegal immigrants in the 27-nation bloc, many living in squalor. This compares with roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.