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EU action on illegal immigrants

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BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union governments have agreed to bring jail sentences for smugglers of illegal immigrants into line, according to Reuters.

Under a compromise reached on Tuesday, EU member states are to set maximum jail terms of between six and 10 years for people found guilty of smuggling or hiding illegal immigrants.

They also agreed on fines against airlines and other carriers -- which bring in non-EU nationals without proper papers -- and rules on sharing banking information needed in criminal investigations.

In a measure aimed at not deterring people from aiding refugees or asylum seekers for humanitarian reasons, EU home affairs ministers agreed on a humanitarian clause allowing member states not to prosecute in those special cases.

Maj-Inger Klingvall, immigration minister of current EU president Sweden, told a news conference: "Only those who have done this for financial gain should be convicted."

Last year France put forward a proposal on common EU sanctions against people smuggling after 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found dead in an airtight container bound for Dover in Britain.

Agreeing on a uniform length of sentence proved too difficult for ministers, so they settled on a compromise, said Reuters.

Most member states will impose a maximum jail term of at least eight years. But Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands -- which argued for more lenient penalties -- will be allowed to impose a six-year maximum term.

Sweden and Denmark have maintained that an eight-year term would be disproportionate with national penalties for other crimes.

France, Italy and Britain -- which advocated a maximum sentence higher than eight years -- have said they would set their jail terms for people smuggling at no less than 10 years.

Under the new rules on carrier liability, Klingvall said, member states could choose to impose fines in three ways, either 3,000 or 5,000 euros ($2,570 or $4,280) per illegal immigrant brought in or a total maximum fine of no less than 500,000 euros.

The rules were criticised by human rights group Amnesty International, which said they not only forced carrier employees to act as customs authorities, but failed to recognise that genuine refugees often lack the proper documents.

But Klingvall said the rules took account of both situations and carriers only had to identify clearly falsified documents.

Also, fines would not be imposed if the non-EU national involved was later granted asylum or legal residence in the EU.

EU justice ministers also agreed on rules allowing EU members to share various types of banking information needed to investigate crimes such as money-laundering, drug and human trafficking and financial and political crimes.

Under the new protocol on mutual legal assistance, an EU country could obtain information from another EU member on bank accounts and transactions.

Thomas Bodstrom, Swedish justice minister, told a news conference: "Criminals can no longer hide behind banking secrecy."

• European Union
• Port of Dover

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