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16th Oct 2021

Lead MEP on asylum fingerprint bill dismisses NGO appeal

  • 'Eurodac is not a data system designed to protect children or manage cases of missing migrant children,' warns Louise Bonneau of the Missing Children Europe NGO (Photo: Alan Levine)
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NGOs have warned that legislative work to reform an EU fingerprint database for migrants and asylum seekers needs to be paused due to fundamental rights issues.

But the lead MEP on the file, Jorge Buxadé, says the European Parliament will seek its swift adoption anyway.

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"The parliament is NOT planning to implement any unnecessary delay, and will continue the negotiations towards its swift adoption," he said, in an email on Thursday (9 September).

Buxadé is an MEP from the far-right Spanish VOX party, and is overseeing negotiations on Eurodac, a database critics say may turn into a "powerful tool for mass surveillance."

Although already in use, the reforms to Eurodac seek to include facial recognition for biometric identification for children as young as six, while expanding data-collection categories. And data collected on irregular migrants would be retained for five years, up from the current 18 months.

Some 31 NGOs earlier this week sent a letter addressed to Buxadé and other MEPs demanding they pause the overhaul.

They said Eurodac as proposed may undermine the EU's duty to respect international asylum and migration law and standards.

"It de facto leads to deeper surveillance of migrants and infringements upon data protection rights," notes the letter.

Left-leaning MEPs working the file on behalf of their political groups agree. Among them is Belgian Green MEP Saskia Bricmont.

"The reform will have severe implications for fundamental rights of asylum seekers and people on the move, including children as from six years old," she said in an email.

The reforms were proposed last year by the European Commission, on the back of a provisional agreement already reached by the co-legislators in 2018. That agreement also came without any vote and transparency.

"This is, democratically-speaking, very concerning," said Bricmont, noting that the European Commission had also not carried out any impact assessment.

Malin Björk, a Swedish MEP from the Left Party, drew similar conclusions. She said the database has turned into a tool for migration control and law enforcement.

"The fact that the rapporteur in European Parliament is from the Spanish far-right has made the process even more impossible," she said, in an email.

Hilde Vautmans is a Belgian MEP for the liberal Renew Europe and is also working on reforms. She supports the renewed legislation "but not at any given price," noting a full respect for EU law and fundamental rights must be met.

The division among other political groups is more pronounced.  

"Any forced delays would lead to more uncertainty and pressure at our external borders," said Croat MEP Karlo Ressler of centre-right EPP group, noting that an impact assessment was carried out by the parliament research services.

Tom Vandendriessche, a Belgian MEP from the far-right Identity and Democracy, says the reforms should have included the collection of migrant DNA.

"The Eurodac proposal for us is just a first step," he said, in an email.

'Map unauthorised movements'

For its part, the commission says the database is needed to help track the movement of migrant and asylum seekers across EU states and return those not allowed to stay in the EU.

"Member states and the EU will benefit from this as a first step to map unauthorised movements," notes their proposal.

They also say it is needed to protect children from trafficking and smugglers, lowering the fingerprint age from the current 14, to six-year olds.

The Council, representing member states, had also earlier proposed using coercive tactics for anyone who refuses to have their prints taken, including children.

But Missing Children Europe, a Brussel-based NGO and signatory of the letter to the MEPs, says the personal data of kids should never be used to manage migration or return them back to their countries.

"Eurodac is not a data system designed to protect children or manage cases of missing migrant children," said Louise Bonneau, senior policy and advocacy officer at Missing Children Europe.

She said its primary purpose is instead to manage migration, including the return of asylum seekers under the Dublin regulation and irregular migrants.

Investigative media reports suggest over 18,000 refugee children have disappeared from asylum seekers' centres in Europe between 2018 and 2020. 

But Bonneau said the figure is likely much higher owing to underreporting and lack of comparable data across EU states.

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