EU plans cross-border refugee database

As immigration controls are tightened, there are fears the system will be open to abuse

Sarah Helm
Sunday 21 April 1996 23:02

Plans are being finalised in Brussels for a Europe-wide refugee database, which will hold the fingerprints of every asylum-seeker who applies for refuge in an EU country.

The database, to be called Eurodac, is viewed by refugee agencies as another sign that Europe is erecting an ever-tighter "ring-fence" against asylum-seekers and immigrants. Civil liberties lawyers caution that a database for refugees could set a precedent for other EU-wide personal data systems, to assist in policing and internal security throughout a border-free Europe.

Britain already has a national system for fingerprinting asylum-seekers, and France has signalled its intention to set up a national scheme. The plan being drawn up in Brussels envisages an unprecedented cross-border data-sharing system.

According to a confidential draft convention on Eurodac now circulating between justice ministries, a central computer would be based in one EU capital - possibly Rome - with linking terminals in each member state. Immigration officials in each country would have access to the fingerprint database, and would use the information to see if an applicant had applied elsewhere in Europe.

The stated intention is to further harmonise refugee policy in each member state and prevent applicants who are refused entry to one EU country, from moving on to apply in another. Under an existing convention, EU countries have already agreed that an asylum-seeker refused entry in one country should be refused entry by all.

Refugee bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, fear that the database could be open to wide-scale abuse. Security agencies in the asylum-seeker's country of origin could gain access to the data, thereby placing applicants at risk should they be forced to return home. Asylum-seekers would have few rights to check information held on computer, where details on why an application was made and refused will also be stored. The EU officials are discussing whether the information should be made available for internal police investigations or to other EU authorities.

Friso Roscam-Abbing, of the European Consultation of Refugees and Exiles, said: "Our main fear is that the information about an asylum-seeker would get back to the applicant's country of origin, leading to further persecution."

The proposals are not a European Commission initiative and have not yet been presented to the European Parliament for approval. Neither the UN High Commission for Refugees nor any other interested bodies have been consulted on the plan, which is being discussed in secret between officials of justice ministries in member states, under the inter-governmental system of co-operation, established for justice and home affairs issues under the Maastricht treaty. As such there is extremely limited scope fordemocratic consultation. Once the plans have been finalised by civil servants, they will be presented for agreement to Europe's justice ministers. Britain, which opposes most new centralising initiatives proposed in Brussels, is expected to support Eurodac as a means of strengthening immigration controls.

"The human rights implication are enormous, yet decisions like this just go through on the nod," said David Burgess, a leading British asylum lawyer. "Either we are creating a two-tier system of rights - one for third country nationals and another for EU nationals. Or we are going to accept that holding information on huge groups of people like this is normal."

The Eurodac scheme follows a series of measures taken jointly by EU member states aimed at co-ordinating asylum procedures, in the wake of fears of growing numbers of so-called "economic migrants" seeking to enter the EU. Common methods for processing asylum seekers have been agreed, as has a common visa list, under which member states impose visa requirements on a single list of countries. A single EU visa will also soon be issued.

The numbers seeking asylum in the EU have already been significantly reduced. As the ring-fence is erected, it is envisaged that internal border checks between EU member states will be further relaxed allowing EU citizens to move more freely. Britain, however, still opposes reduction of internal border controls despitethe new measures for exterior frontier controls.

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