Illegal immigration, asylum and border control

The EU policy is to develop a common system for immigration and asylum and a single external border control strategy. The aim is a common asylum policy, working towards the long-term resident status of refugees and developing the return and readmissions policy. 


National programmes to control immigration into EU member states have been in existence for decades but it was not until October 1999 that moves were made towards an EU-wide common asylum and immigration policy at the Tampere Summit. The results of the Tampere programme were published on its expiry in May 2004 (COM(2004)401). The continuation of this initiative was decided upon at the European Council of Nov 2004, and is known as the "Hague programme", a 5 year plan to establish an area of freedom, security and justice in the EU.

In September 2005, the Commission adopted a new package of measures on immigration and asylum, comprising a proposed directive on common standards on return and three communications on integration, regional protection programmes and migration and development.

Further information on legal immigration and visas for work, study etc. can be found in the EURACTIV Linksdossier on Economic migration.

Illegal immigration

According to EU sources, around half a million illegal immigrants enter the EU every year. In February 2002, the EU Council of Ministers adopted a comprehensive plan to combat illegal immigration and trafficking of human beings in the European Union. This plan included initiatives on visa policy, readmission and repatriation, border management and human trafficking.


The right to asylum is guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the establishment of a common European asylum policy was agreed upon at Tampere. The goal is to set minimum standards, quotas etc. throughout the EU.

Tampere set out two steps to achieve this:

the adoption of minimum EU standards and the limitation of national legislation. This was completed in December 2005 through:

  • Dublin II Regulation (2003): established objective criteria for determining which member state was responsible for a particular asylum application and stopped the practice of "asylum shopping";

  • Four Directives: a) minimum protection for refugees (2001/55/EC); b) minimum standards of accommodation, healthcare etc on reception of refugees (2003/9/EC); c) common definition for "refugee" (2004/83/EC); d) asylum procedures directive guaranteeing minimum level of protection for refugees (adopted 1 Dec 2005);
  • Eurodac (15 January 2003):  enables a member state to compare fingerprints of asylum seekers or foreign citizens who are illegally on its territory, in order to verify whether they have submitted an asylum application in another member state;

  • European Refugee Fund: received financial help from EU for reception centres and voluntary repatriation schemes.

the creation of an EU procedure and uniform status for those granted asylum. So far there have been two Commission communications: one from June 2004 deals with protection of refugees and asylum seekers in their countries of origin and one from July 2004 which aims to set up a common application system for asylum through one EU authority.

Return and readmission

Any third-country national who has no legal right, temporary or permanent, to reside in the EU must return to their country of origin. This should be done on a voluntary basis but to deal with situations where this is not achievable, the Commission formulated the Return Action Programme in November 2002. It sets out proposals for minimum standards for forced repatriation on a short, medium and long-term basis.

Readmission agreements are bilateral agreements between the EU and a non-EU country and are designed to facilitate the expulsion of illegal immigrants. They introduce an obligation on the non-EU country to readmit, without any formalities, its own nationals and people coming from or having lived in that country. In return, non-EU countries would receive funds to take back and resettle these people. Four readmission agreements exist at present, with Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Macao and Albania. Negotiations continue with Morocco, Russia, Pakistan, Ukraine, Algeria, China and Turkey. 

Information exchange 

A community policy on migration and asylum requires proper data. Therefore, the Commission put forward an action plan for the collection of statistics on asylum and migration, set out in a communication of May 2003. Eurostat publishes monthly reports giving migration rates and figures for asylum applications.

In 2002, the Commission set up the European Migration Network (EMN) to offer a single reference point for the coordination of the huge amount of information on migration issues being produced through-out the Union. A public debate on the future role of the EMN was launched by a November 2005 green paper.

Another agency known as CARIM produces data on migration issues in the Mediterranean area in particular, in association with agencies in the EU's Mediterranean partner countries.

Border Control

The Schengen accord seeks to remove border checks on people moving between member states within the EU. An important part of this plan was the reinforcement of external border controls and the Schengen Convention, now incorporated into EU law, provided for cross-border police cooperation, information exchange, surveillance and cross-border pursuit. 

In addition, the Schengen Information System (SIS) was set up to record refusals of entry for asylum-seekers, arrest warrants, missing persons and stolen objects. Proposals to extend the database (SIS II) have been put forward. The new system will include further information (i.e. biometric data on travel documents – see Biometrics LinksDossier) and should be operational by 2007.

A European Agency for the Management of Operational Co-operation at the External Borders (European border control agency), with dedicated funding was established in May 2005. It is a co-ordinating body, monitoring land, air and sea borders between member states which supports national authorities with training and risk-assessment. 

Human Trafficking

Trafficking in human beings, the exploitation of individuals, often women and children for sexual purposes, is a crime and a breach of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. A framework decision to combat human trafficking was taken in July 2002 and  in 2004 the Hague programme called for an action plan. This was published in October 2005, together with a  communication, giving an integrated approach centred on human rights.

Family Reunification

A 2003 Directive sets out the rules by which third-country nationals, legally in the EU can apply for their familes to join them, but by the date of implementation on 3 October 2005, only six member states had put these rules into practice (the UK, Denmark and Ireland are not subject to the directive). The Commission has indicated that it will take action to enforce implementation in the other 16 member states.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles views the laws so far adopted at EU level as inadequate to ensure protection for refugees and asylum seekers. It finds that the standards set are minimal, leaving  member states too much opportunity for derogation, and lacking the necessary safeguards. It states that the "absolute respect of the right to seek asylum", promised at Tampere has been totally undermined. 

Statewatch, the UK human rights organisation, has concerns over the EU asylum policy particularly the rules on refusing to accept asylum seekers who come from so-called "safe countries". It also regards the standards set for accepting refugees as unacceptably low.

The International Federation for Human Rights has called on the EU to renounce the readmission agreements it has made with third countries such as Morocco, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It does not believe that the human rights of such returnees can be protected.

Adam Townsend from the Centre for European Reform takes the view that a true European area of freedom security and justice within one external border can only be achieved by working upwards from local level: what is needed is co-operation amongst police, border security and law-enforcement authorities from different countries. In his view progress towards the Tampere goals has been very slow.

Amnesty International campaigns for the enforcement of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees and is concerned that some EU countries are deporting refugees in circumstances where their safety is at risk.

The European Network Against Racism has highlighted the fact that immigrants across Europe are particularly vulnerable to homelessness and that action is needed at EU level to address this problem.


  • first step measures to be implemented by member states as soon as possible 
  • legislation towards the second step to be prepared with view to adoption by 2010 

  • study to be done on possibility of joint processing of asylum applications.

Border Control: 

  • SIS II in place by 2007
  • European border control agency (Frontex) opened in May 2005; evaluation by end 2007
  • community border fund to be set up by end 2006

Human trafficking: 

  • Communication and action plan delivered October 2005.

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