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Futile and illegal — the case against Sarkozy’s migrant summit

Could Britain be heading for Roma-style expulsions?

A group of high immigration officials from six countries, including the UK, invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy, meets in Paris today to see what can be done to undermine the principle of the free movement of people between EU member states.

The French government, along with its Italian allies in Silvio Berlusconi's administration, has made it clear that it thinks European Union rules in this area are far too lax, and do not give sufficient authority to nation states to restrain the movement of European migrants when it appears to conflict with their political interests.

Back in 2008, Rome led the way in seeking powers to tackle these matters when it pushed through a law allowing the mass round-up and deportation of Roma, mainly of Romanian nationality.

At that time, the European Commission intervened to abrogate the measure on the grounds of an obvious conflict with EU citizens' directives. These limit the expulsion power of national governments to individual cases, in which grounds for action have been established on the basis of a clear threat to public policy, public security or public health.

Since then the French have stepped to the forefront in claiming wider powers of expulsion for their immigration authorities, and, like the Italians, made people of Roma background the principal targets for their actions. In 2009, Sarkozy's government returned 10,000 people, mainly citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, a further 8,000 people being removed so far in 2010.

The Paris meeting has been proclaimed by its sponsors as an opportunity for other national governments sympathetic to this approach to form a bloc that will overwhelm legal objections from the EU, and to permit the deportation of EU nationals as a general response to the economic downturn.

The Italian immigration minister, Roberto Moroni, revealed his thinking on this point when he claimed the right on the part of national governments to act against migrants who have failed to secure for themselves "a minimum level of income, adequate housing and not being a burden on the social welfare system of the country hosting them".

Yet this is a terrain that has already been explored, both by the last Labour government and by the current coalition in recent months, through special projects directed against migrants from the central European and Baltic countries that joined the EU after 2004.

Under one such pilot programme, UK Border Agency officials have issued notice to homeless migrants who are out of work or not attending a course of education, informing them that they have no right to reside in the UK under EU law. If they are not prepared to leave voluntarily, expulsion is underpinned by the prospect of immigration enforcement.

The number removed under this procedure up to now is believed to be small -- in the region of 13 people, with another hundred being served a "minded to remove" letter. But UK Border Agency and community and local government officials are reviewing the work of the pilot, with a view to rolling it out across other regions of the UK. If this is the case, the numbers exposed to the threat of losing their rights to residency might quickly rise.

People working with vulnerable migrant communities have pointed to the futility of such policies, which are likely to increase insecurity as migrants removed from one country begin to drift in larger numbers across the whole of EU. Perhaps of even more concern should be that removing European migrants under such circumstances may well turn out to be unlawful under EU law -- an assertion made recently by prominent lawyers in the field.

Heather Ureche, of Equality, a UK charity working with Roma families, anticipates that a number of Roma may arrive from autumn onwards as pressure to leave France and Italy persists. She has also seen evidence that the UK welfare authorities have started adopting a much harsher approach to immigrants of eastern European origin, withdrawing child and family tax benefits, threatening destitute parents with care proceedings against their children, and increasing inspections of multiple-occupancy homes, leading to more people being pitched on to the street.

It is clear that defenders of the basic human rights of migrants will resist all of these attempts to promote even higher levels of insecurity among vulnerable groups. They expect to receive the support of civic society organisations, from trade unions through to the churches. The really interesting question is whether the defence of rights to free movement across Europe is an issue that will prick the conscience of the Liberal Democrat wing of the coalition, and that of the Labour opposition.

Don Flynn is the director of Migrants' Rights Network.