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Secret US-EU meeting on asylum: the construction of a common EU-US area of migration, asylum and borders?

- the US want a new approach on the "whole system of visas, borders control, management of legal migration etc... not targeted specifically at terrorism" and covering "all forms of illegal immigration"

Details of secret discussions between EU and US officials on 26 October 2001 have been revealed by Jelle van Buuren, Eurowatch, who obtained a document refused to him by the Council of the European Union. He was refused access by the Council because US officials assume that "these kind of meetings are of a confidential nature" and that release of the document would be "contrary to the common interest to take effective measures to make travelling safe".

In fact, although the document refers to countering terrorism most of the impact of the measures discussed would radically change the EU's policies on asylum and the rights of asylum-seekers.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, commented:

"This secret meeting between the EU and US directly follows up the demands in a letter from President Bush to the European Commission last October. We may be witnessing the creation of a new northern "Fortress Europe-USA".

Story by Jelle van Buuren on: Telepolis
Full-text of the leaked document: "Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum - meeting with the United States, 26.10.01: Text (pdf)
Full-text and analysis of the Bush demands on the EU (16.10.01): Text

The basis for the meeting between the EU-US officials were the demands set out for the EU to change its policies and practices set out in the letter to the EU by Bush on 16 October 2001 (see above).

The meeting with members of the EU's high-level Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum covered eight major areas for joint EU-US action:

1. The US wants the EU to introduce immigration and customs controls in airport transit areas. However, "several" EU member states said that: "terminating airside transit would have major repercussions for European hub airports and underlined the need to distinguish between intelligence based policing of transit areas and the blanket control of all passengers".

2. The US wants a list of data: "to be exchanged between border management services of the [EU] Member States and of North America".

The US delegation listed the data which might be exchanged:

"view to increasing border control capabilities, including intelligence driven data (review of passenger lists), data on persons known to be inadmissible due to involvement in criminal activity (trafficking, dealing in false documents, etc.), customs data (e.g. on drugs smuggling), harder intelligence data on terrorist threats, data on visas, data on migration flows."

The US said that it had a database, drawn from different US agencies, on the 10 million a year visa applications made and the database contained the names of people "involved in various kinds of activities giving rise to concern." US consular officials when processing visa applications check names against the database and "signals" are given for: green (OK), red (refuse) and yellow (where a person should be checked/vetted futher). A change in the US law meant this information could now be shared with other governments.

The European Commission representative at the meeting said that the EU was intending to create an online database on visas issued but shared a view - expressed by several member states - that "sharing information could give rise to difficulties at the level of data protection requirements". The US responded by saying that "data concerning US residents was protected" which begs the obvious question about non-US people.

However, it should be noted that the planned EU visa database will also hold information on people for whom visas are refused, ie. on a visa applications' database.

3. The US wants all EU governments to extend usage of airline passenger details held on APIS (Advanced Passenger Information System). At present, the US said, details on only 85% of passengers were available for checking against the "watch list". Their intention was to extend the system to cover the entry and exits of all passengers. Moreover, the US was looking into the Australian practice of using APIS: "for pre-boarding intervention especially in the case of "watch-list" persons". This would mean that people on the list, including so-called "inadmissibles" would not be allowed onto a plane going to the USA.

Asked by EU delegation representatives about the "handling of personal data" the US representatives said the data was limited to that a person would have to give on a landing card - the difference of course is that unlike the completion of a landing card by the individual concerned this would be recorded without their knowledge.

4. Under the heading: "Improve cooperation in the removals of status violators/criminals/inadmissibles" the US delegation requested:

"greater cooperation from its European partners in assisting in the return of inadmissible persons to their country of origin"

The US said that only 2,000 "returns" to country of origin (out of a total of 180,000 removals from the US) had been effected through using EU airports as transit stop-overs for expulsions to the Middle East and Africa. They complained that the procedures and rules imposed by the EU were hindering the work of the "US immigration service [which] was under great pressure to carry out removals".

The EU representatives responded by saying that the "role and status of escorts" had to be clarified and that they had obligations under the Geneva Convention "(principle of non-refoulement)" and the European Convention on Human Rights. One EU delegation questioned whether this was an appropriate subject to discuss under "terrorism" measures as it fell into "the area of illegal migration".

5. The US, extraordinarily:

"wanted the [EU] Member States to make fuller use of the expulsion possibilities contained in their aliens legislation rather than having to have recourse to extradition procedures"

The EU representatives explained that expulsion and extradition were quite different procedures since their effect and "legal consequences were totally different".

This US demand is further raised with the statement:

"With regard to expulsion procedures, the aim pursued by the US was not to abridge normal procedures but to make fuller usage of immigration proceedings to avoid having to have recourse to extradition".

This statement is coupled with the explanation of an overall shift in US policy covering the:

"whole system of visas, border controls, management of legal migration etc... and there was a consensus in the US on the need for an effective system across the board, not targeted specifically at terrorism, but taking the events of 11 September as the trigger for developing a new approach"

6. The US is calling for US-EU cooperation on "border security" covering i) training; ii) "enhanced border security infrastructure" and iii) the exchange of "activities underway in third countries".

7. The US wants all travellers not in possession of a visa to have "machine-readable documents" from October 2003. The EU representatives said this could prove difficult "given the large number of non-machine readable documents still in circulation".

The US also wants an agreement on stolen passports and stolen blank passports with a view to a:

"more regular exchange of information with [EU] Member States with a view to entering such information into its data base in order to facilitate the identification of the holders of such documents"

This demand begs a number of questions because hundreds of thousands of lost or stolen passports are recorded on the Schengen Information System (SIS) every year. Is the EU already sending information of this kind to the US? What guarantees of data protection are being offered? The passing of such information would mean giving the US database personal details of EU citizens whose passports are lost or stolen.

The US delegation concluded by saying that:

"the list of proposals could evolve as the US sought to intensify effects not just to counter terrorism but also to combat all forms of illegal migration movements"

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