The EU currently finds itself in a conundrum. It is now a unified labour block where EU citizens can work in any member country. The benefits to this system are many, but at the same time Brussels has had to move quickly to harmonize labour rules across the bloc to make sure this unified working block has the same working rules. That has included establishing a minimum amount of days off a year (24), laying out basic human rights for workers, and most recently a proposal to introduce an EU ‘blue card’ that would mirror the US green card and allow an immigrant to work anywhere in the EU.
But the union still has a long way to go, and labour laws still vary widely from state to state. One of the trickier issues around labour has been how each state handles illegal migrant workers. Harmonization of the rules has become urgent not just because of the slow coalescence of labour law but also because of the rapidly expanding Schengen Zone, the zone of European countries that have dismantled their internal borders. Now that someone can travel from Estonia to Lisbon without going through a border check, border security, immigration and work status have become very important issues, particularly for those nations which now find themselves at the periphery of the EU, suddenly tasked with patrolling the borders of all of continental Europe. Malta has had the hardest time, constantly faced with waves of immigrants from Africa coming by boat hoping to reach the EU offshore island in the Mediterranean.
One issue that has been tricky has been migrant workers, people who sneak into the EU in order to work here illegally. The EU suffers from this problem drastically less than the United States, but it is still a big issue and each year more and more people try to enter illegally. The European Commission estimates there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the bloc. More than 200,000 were arrested in the EU in the first half of 2007. Fewer than 90,000 were expelled.
Right now the different states have different ways of dealing with the illegal migrants they catch, and many illegal migrants know this. In Germany, if someone is caught being in the country illegally they can be put in a detention center for up to 18 months. However in Spain, they can’t be detained for more than 40 days, and in Hungary they can’t be kept for more than a year. If you wanted to enter the EU Schengzen Zone then, you’d be best off entering through these countries.
However today the European Union nations approved a unified illegal migrant detention and expulsion policy that all states will have to adopt: a maximum of 18 months in a detention center and a 5-year re-entry ban.
The draft law still has to be approved by EU lawmakers in a vote scheduled for next month, and the issue is controversial to say the least. The 18-month maximum is higher than the maximum jail time in two thirds of the EU states. And in yet others, such as the UK, it is lower than the current maximum (in the UK there is no maximum time limit at all). In Italy, recently reinstated prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made good on a campaign promise Wednesday and made illegal immigration a jailable offense there.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have argued that the five year ban on reentry is excessive and cruel. They particularly object to the provision that says children can be detained. Earlier this month rights activists and illegal migrants demonstrated in Brussels against the measure. The crux of their argument is that the proposal would effectively criminalise migration and build a "fortress Europe".
It can be expected that the EU capital will see more such demonstrations in the lead-up to the vote scheduled for next month, if the vote even comes to pass. As it stands, lawmakers may need more time to hammer out their differences before this goes to the floor.