STRASBOURG (Reuters) - A law that allows illegal immigrants to be detained for up to 18 months faced a knife-edge vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday due to left-wing opposition and doubts among other lawmakers, EU officials said.
After nearly three years of debate, European Union interior ministers this month agreed the measure, which allows detention without trial and means illegal immigrants would also face a re-entry ban of up to 5 years.
The measure, which has been widely criticised by human rights groups, now needs to be agreed by the European Parliament.
Conservatives and liberals supported it in a debate on Tuesday, giving the text a theoretical majority, while socialists, greens and a communist-led group wanted to reduce the detention length.
“There is a majority on paper, but there can always be surprises, no one can predict the outcome,” one European Parliament official said. “It’s going to be a knife-edge vote,” another official said after the debate, adding that there would be splits within political groups.
“This directive is a disgrace, it’s an insult to civilisation in Europe,” said Italian left-winger Giusto Catania, saying illegal migrants should not be detained for 18 months without having committed a crime.
“We are building a Europe which is shutting down on itself,” said fellow socialist Martine Roure, urging the bloc to take steps to facilitate legal migration.
The 18-month limit is higher than the maximum detention in two-thirds of the 27 EU states. Although EU states can keep a lower limit if they want, rights groups and opponents say it will encourage authorities to lock up more illegal migrants.
The EU executive estimates there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the bloc. More than 200,000 were arrested in the first half of 2007 but less than 90,000 expelled.
EU Commissioner Jacques Barrot said on Tuesday the law was needed to make the bloc’s migration policies credible, a stance backed by conservative and liberal lawmakers.
“It’s a decisive step towards a necessary common policy on immigration, an essential legal instrument to safeguard fundamental rights for immigrants,” said Spanish conservative Agustin Diaz de Mera Garcia.
“It raises standards in some member states,” liberal Sarah Ludford said, calling it an imperfect but necessary law.
Slovenia’s interior minister Dragutin Mate warned lawmakers that if they rejected the text it would take several more years to reach an agreement.
The draft law allows children to be detained while saying that should be for the shortest appropriate period of time.
Currently, illegal migrants cannot be detained for more than 40 days in Spain and a year in Hungary, according to European Commission data. Germany already has an 18-month detention cap, while eight EU countries, who have higher caps or none at all would need to introduce the new EU limit.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, urged lawmakers to reject the text. “The proposed directive is unacceptable as an EU standard,” she said in a statement. “Detention should only be used in very exceptional cases, always for the shortest possible time.”
Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Giles Elgood