In one of the clearest signs yet of Europe's hardening stance on immigration, on Wednesday the European Parliament approved tough new rules for expelling undocumented immigrants, among them a provision allowing member nations to keep migrants in detention centers for up to 18 months. Foreigners who have been forcibly deported also face a five-year ban on reentering the European Union.
The measure, which met stiff opposition from liberal lawmakers and human rights groups, comes as a wave of anti-immigrant feeling and policy proposals are sweeping Europe and parts of the United States. Many observers see the EU vote as a litmus test of the public mood and bellwether of policies to come.
"It is clearly a symbol of the direction the EU is going," says Andrew Geddes, a political scientist at the University of Sheffield in England. "When it comes to immigration, the focus is going to be limiting access through very strict controls."
The product of nearly three years of negotiations, the new measure aims to standardize rules for deporting immigrants, which vary widely across the 27-nation bloc. Under the terms, EU countries are required to give illegal immigrants seven to 30 days to leave Europe after receiving deportation orders.
Those who don't depart voluntarily, or who officials fear may go into hiding, can be detained for up to 18 months while awaiting removal to their home country or a third nation. This includes families and unaccompanied children, though EU nations are urged to detain minors only as a "last resort." The measure also lays out some safeguards, like provisions for medical care.
Supporters contend the rules were needed to give weight to immigration laws. "Europe has made it clear that it is not tolerating any form of illegal status," says Manfred Weber, a German center-right lawmaker, who shepherded the directive through parliament.
But critics argue the EU measure will erode humanitarian standards in Europe and beyond. During the floor debate that preceded the vote, Giusto Catania, an Italian leftist, called the measure "an insult to civilization in Europe."
The new policy –part of a wide-ranging package of policies under negotiation in the EU that aim to create a common European approach to immigration – is part of a widespread anti-immigrant backlash.
•Last month, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who blames immigrants for soaring crime rates, proposed a raft of measures, among them a law to make entering the country without permission a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. Meanwhile, Roma (gypsy) camps around Naples have been reduced to charred ruins by a string of fire-bomb attacks.
•On Tuesday, Spain announced plans to give legal immigrants who have lost their jobs lump sum payments if they agree to return home (see accompanying story).
•And France has vowed to make illegal immigration a key focus of its EU presidency, which begins July 1. Among the measures it hopes to see the European Parliament approve are sanctions for companies that employ undocumented immigrants.
The new EU directive is part of a wide-ranging package of policies under negotiation in the EU that aim to create a common European approach to immigration.
Critics argue the measure could encourage European nations to hold immigrants and asylum seekers in detention for longer periods. Currently, two-thirds of member states have limits shorter than those specified under the new law. In France, for instance, immigrants can be held only 32 days; Hungary has a one-year cap.
Italy has already announced that it plans to abandon its two-month limit in favor of the new 18-month standard.
In the EU, there are 224 detention centers for migrants, with space for more than 30,000 detainees. While the centers vary greatly, a 236-page report contracted by the European Parliament last year found that the conditions at many are "grim," "inhumane," and "degrading," with immigrants kept in small, prisonlike cells.
The report also notes that investigators were "particularly shocked by the presence of detained minors in closed detention centers in the vast majority of the States studied," and expressed grave concerns about young detainees' mental health.
Critics of the new EU directive take issue with the five-year reentry ban, saying it doesn't make enough provisions for shifting political realities or unforeseeable events, such as famine and war, which could leave expelled immigrants vulnerable. "This piece of the policy could be very dangerous in terms of refugee protection," says Kris Pollet, of Amnesty International's EU office.
In the run-up to Wednesday's vote, emotional debate erupted among members of European Parliament, as Amnesty International and others lobbied vigorously to block the measure. The Roman Catholic Church and Latin American leaders also weighed in. Bolivian President Evo Morales went as far as threatening to abandon negotiations on a trade pact between Europe and Andean nations if the EU adopted the directive.
In the end, the measure was approved 369 to 197, with 106 abstentions. Many lawmakers made it clear they backed the measure despite reservations because of pressure from the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, which threatened to block future talks on rules for returning immigrants if this measure didn't pass without amendments.
"The council said take it or leave it," said Claudio Fava, a liberal French lawmaker, adding that he found it "very grave" that parliament had "wasted this opportunity by simply accepting the council's firm request to wrap everything up."
Professor Geddes argues that many of these measures have as much to do with how Europe views itself as how it sees the newcomers. "Unlike the US, most European nations don't see themselves as immigration countries," he says. "Many people here are still trying to reconcile themselves with the fact that this situation is permanent, that people who have arrived won't just going away."