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Denmark defends tough migrant laws

Fogh Rasmussen
Danish PM Fogh Rasmussen's coalition came to power pledging tighter controls  

CNN's Graham Jones

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CNN) -- Denmark's government says its controversial crackdown on immigrants will merely bring it into line with other EU nations and dismissed charges it was selling out to the far-right.

The Danish parliament, the Folketing, staged heated debate on the package of tough immigration laws on Thursday and is set to vote them through on Friday, with the centre-right government relying on votes of the right-wing anti-immigrant Danish People's Party (DPP).

Denmark's move -- which has brought criticism from other EU countries and the UNHCR -- came on the day of rising concern across Europe about the immigration issue.

The Danish measures restrict the rights to entry, end the automatic right of a citizen to bring in a spouse and cut welfare benefits to foreigners.

Meanwhile, in London on Thursday the British government announced a tightening of immigration laws, forbidding rejected asylum seekers from launching an appeal within the country.

IN-DEPTH: Immigration: Europe on the move 

In Rome, EU government ministers met to try to agree on a start in developing a joint policy and procedures on asylum seekers -- while expressing concern at the growth of anti-immigrant right-wing parties.

Also at the Rome meeting there was pressure on the European Commission to take legal action against France over asylum seekers entering Britain illegally through the Channel Tunnel.

The move by Denmark to tighten its immigration rules is a controversial one, not least because it will come into effect as the Danes take over the EU's rotating presidency on July 1 -- with immigration emerging as the EU's top issue.

The "new policy for foreigners," as Copenhagen puts it, has led to a bitter row with Sweden, whose immigration minister Mona Sahin has angrily condemned her Danish opposite number, Bertel Haarder.

Sahin wrote a joint letter with her Belgian and French counterparts to Haarder condemning the new law.

Denmark's tough line has diverted many would-be asylum seekers to Sweden. Official Danish figures for the first three months of 2002 quoted by the Financial Times showed a drop in the number of asylum seekers by 38 percent. In Sweden in the same period the figure rose 68 percent.

Chunnel refugee
Britain has been under pressure from a flow of refugees through France  

But Haarder told Reuters on Thursday that Denmark would be "very close to the European average" once the changes were approved.

Haarder said that the percentage of asylum seekers to Denmark who end up getting asylum was now the highest in the EU, at 43 percent. "Our aim is to go down to the European average, perhaps 40 percent," he said.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right coalition, which came to power in November, depends on the support of the right-wing DPP Party whose leader Pia Kjaersgaard has been virulent in her criticism of asylum seekers.

Haarder denied the government was hostage to the DPP, which became the third largest party in November by winning 22 of 179 seats in parliament.

"What we have proposed here is what we proposed 10 years ago," he said.

The measures being voted on Friday include only admitting refugees entitled to protection under international conventions and abolishing a loose category of "de facto refugees."

There will be an end to the automatic right of entry of a spouse. The minimum age at which immigrants can bring a foreign spouse to live in Denmark is to be raised from 18 to 24.

Permanent residence permits will in the future only be given after seven years instead of the current three, and full entitlement to welfare benefits will be denied to foreigners for the first seven years.

"Foreigners coming to Denmark must support themselves," says the integration ministry.

Under the new law, applicants for Danish nationality must take a Danish language and citizenship test. Anyone with a criminal conviction will be subject to a waiting period of at least two years.

Any asylum seekers going "underground" will not have his or her application processed. Anyone refused entry will be compelled to leave the country immediately, and not within 15 days.

The laws will be followed by new measures on integration which will be go through parliament in the autumn. These are designed to get more immigrants and refugees into work.

As the immigration measures were being debated in Copenhagen, Britain announced a move to ban rejected asylum seekers from launching an appeal within the country.

The news came as new figures showed Britain received 19,520 applications in the first quarter of the year, up 1,520 from the previous quarter.

Under the UK laws, failed asylum applicants will be sent back to their country of origin, or a country they passed through on the way to Britain, from where they can appeal against the British authorities' decision, a British Home Office spokesman said.

Most who reach Britain have travelled through another European country en route.

European Union leaders will discuss harmonising their immigration and asylum laws at a summit in Seville next month.

As preparation for this in Rome on Thursday interior ministers of the 15 EU nations and their counterparts from a dozen nations aspiring to join the bloc plan to "assess how governments can work more together," EU spokesman Lionello Gabrici told The Associated Press.

In 1999, EU leaders agreed to establish common standards for procedures, conditions for reception of asylum-seekers and rules on the recognition of refugee status.

But despite saying they wished to end the spectacle of "asylum shopping" where immigrants headed for countries which gave the most generous benefits they shied away from harmonising regulations or establishing a special fund to assist member states facing an influx of refugees.

The United Nations estimated that from 1980-2000, 8.4 million people sought asylum in industrialised nations, with Europe seeing the greatest numbers.

In 2000, about 400,000 came to the EU, mostly from Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. The majority settled in Britain, France and Germany.

Aided by an international network of people-smugglers, tens of thousands of illegal migrants, mostly from Africa and Asia, head for Europe, by boat, train and truck every year.


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