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Jailing migrant families together with convicted criminals: A desperate EU policy to deter irregular migration

by Steve Peers, Professor of Law, University of Essex: (23.6.15)

This week's European Council (Summit) meeting is due to discuss the issues of immigration, in light of the recent high loss of life of Mediterranean migrants. The draft Summit Conclusions call for most Member States to participate in "relocating 40,000 people in clear need of temporary protection" from Greece and Italy, as proposed by the Commission. If agreed, this would be a significant change in traditional EU policy - although the details of relocation have yet to be worked out, and the Commission proposal did not use the phrase 'temporary protection'. All Member States would also agree to sign up to resettle 20,000 refugees directly from regions of origin over two years. Even the UK has volunteered to participate it in this, recently offering to take a few hundred more people from Syria.

Yet in conjunction with this policy the EU intends to harden its policy towards irregular migrants, ie those non-EU citizens who have not applied for asylum or whose applications have failed. The draft summit conclusions endorse a strategy of encouraging more non-EU countries in Africa to take their citizens back, by offering them further incentives to do so. But furthermore, the EU intends to put greater pressure on the migrants themselves to leave. The Summit Conclusions refer to a letter to Interior Ministers from the EU Home Affairs Commissioner Avramopolous, who suggests a number of actions to this end.

The letter calls for a widespread use of detention of irregular migrants, for up to 18 months. In particular it calls for use of an obscure clause allowing for exceptions to the normal EU standards for detention of irregular migrants. This means that three usual protections will no longer apply:

- detention of irregular migrants in separate facilities from ordinary prisoners, or at least (if they are detained in prisons) separately from the prisoners within them;
- detention of families separately; and
- frequent judicial review of immigration detention.

Steve Peers comments:

"Taken together, the loss of these protections will mean that irregular migrants, including irregular migrant families, will not only be detained in ordinary prisons, but mixed in with the ordinary prison population of convicted criminals and those awaiting trial for serious crimes. Moreover, their capacity to challenge their detention by means of judiicial review will be severely curtailed.

Coupled with the recent Commission paper offering guidelines for using force, including against pregnant women, on migrants who refuse to be fingerprinted, this represents a significant turn in EU policy - turning toward direct and indirect threats of physical violence to control their behaviour and induce them to leave.

To say the least, this is hard to square with the EU's frequent professions of support for the human rights and decent treatment of migrants."


1. Draft European Council conclusions

2. Letter from Commissioner Avramopolous to Ministers with Annex (Statewatch version, 75KB) or link to Council's 10.5 MB version

3. Coercive measures or expulsion: Fingerprinting migrants (pdf)

See also: Statewatch Special Report: "War" to be declared on migrants

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