EU unveils plans for biometric border controls
The European Commission on Wednesday (13 February) kicked off a lengthy legislative process aimed at tightening up controls on who enters and leaves the 27-nation bloc.
"This package designs a completely new way of controlling our borders", EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini said unveiling the three new proposals.
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They include an entry/exit register of non-European visitors, a European Border Surveillance System designed to detect those who enter the bloc between border crossing points as well as better use of the EU's border control agency, Frontex.
According to Mr Frattini, "the most advanced technology" will be used to make sure bona fide travellers continue to have access to the Schengen passport-free area but under tougher security conditions.
"We don't have an alternative. It's because of terrorist threats, criminality, paedophile networks. We cannot have them using better technology than police", the Italian commissioner said.
The "most ambitious" of Brussels' plans is the proposal to establish an electronic register, designed to monitor all non-EU nationals admitted to the Schengen zone, starting from 2015.
The system would record information on the time and place of a traveller's entry as well as the length of stay authorised. It would also automatically alert competent authorities, should a person be identified as over staying their time.
According to commission data, approximately 300 million people enter or leave the European Union each year - making the bloc the world's most popular tourist destination. Some 140 million of these crossings are made by non-EU citizens.
Brussels argues that thousands of foreigners currently overstay their visa, but the union has no tools for identifying them.
In 2006, there were up to eight million illegal immigrants within EU territory. Generally, over half of them tends to enter Europe legally, but become illegal by overstaying their right to stay.
Under Mr Frattini's proposal, all third-country visitors requiring a visa to enter the EU will have to provide their biometric data as part of their visa application, while those who don't need a visa will be checked on arrival.
Border-crossing points should be equipped with new biometric technology such as eye scanners to allow automated and more accurate identity verification.
The commission has also mooted the possibility of setting up a system that requires non-EU travellers to obtain an electronic authorisation to travel before they leave for Europe - a system already in place in Australia.
"Requiring an electronic authorisation to travel could be considered as an alternative to requiring a visa from the nationals of a third country, or be required from nationals from a third country currently not under the visa requirement", the commission proposal says, adding a study will be launched on this issue later this year.
Human rights groups as well as some EU parliamentarians have already questioned the plans from a right to privacy point of view.
"The EU is going down a very dangerous route of tracking, storing and accessing data on individuals' movements without an adequate grip on the consequences for privacy, notably through 'profiling', misuse and carelessness", UK liberal MEP Sarah Ludford said.
Instead, she called for "intelligence-led policing and targeted monitoring".
The European Council on refugees and exiles (ECRE) has raised concern over asylum seekers who will not be able to physically reach the EU due to the numerous border control measures.
"Whilst Europe's border are ever tighter and more secure, victims of persecution around the world are finding it ever harder to reach a safe haven", Bjarte Vandvik from the ECRE said.
"The construction of a common European asylum system will be meaningless if asylum seekers cannot reach the EU's territory", he added, pointing to the fact that "asylum applications in EU countries are at their lowest level for 20 years".