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 Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 08:57 GMT
EU begins asylum fingerprinting
Asylum seekers queue in front of an immigrant office in Hamburg
Some 400,000 people per year seek asylum in the EU
The European Union has launched its first centralised fingerprint database aimed at preventing abuses of the asylum system.

From Wednesday, all asylum seekers over the age of 14 will be fingerprinted to check that they have not already made an asylum application in another EU country.

In public opinion there is this idea that there are major abuses being perpetrated all over the place, right, left and centre

Frank Paul
EU official
Every year, some 400,000 people seek asylum in the 15 countries of the EU.

EU officials say the system will put an end to multiple asylum applications, or "asylum-shopping".

They say the system complies with human rights obligations and the data will not be made available to national governments.

Co-ordinating policy

Many people are believed to enter the EU through one country, such as Greece or Italy, but then move on to Germany or Britain, searching for better conditions.

They will now be fingerprinted in the first country where they apply for asylum and their details will be matched to data already stored in the central computer.

Afghan refugee family
An independent body is to ensure police do not give data to countries of origin

If they are discovered to have applied elsewhere, under EU rules, the asylum-seeker will be sent back to the country where the first application was made.

"This is to streamline our asylum policy across the European Union," said EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Antonio Vitorino.

UK Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes, whose country is one of a few already fingerprinting asylum seekers, said the system would help speed up the processing of asylum cases.

The test

"This database, in time, will provide us with a valuable resource to tackle multiple asylum applications and deter asylum shopping," Ms Hughes said.

However, no one knows the real extent of asylum-shopping, says the BBC's Oana Lungescu in Brussels. Officials have estimated it to be about 10-20%.

She says that, with illegal immigration a hot topic all over Europe, officials believe Eurodac - as the system is called - will help restore public confidence in the asylum system.

This database, in time, will provide us with a valuable resource to tackle multiple asylum applications and deter asylum shopping

Beverley Hughes
UK Home Office Minister
"If we can see there are many multiple applications... then we will be able to combat it. But if the statistics on the other hand show that the level... was lower than we thought that would nevertheless be a useful result," said Frank Paul, the official in charge of Eurodac.

"In public opinion there is this idea that there are major abuses being perpetrated all over the place, right, left and centre. If the Eurodac system can demonstrate... the abuse is limited in scale, then this will contribute to changing public opinion," Mr Paul told a news conference on Tuesday.

But as the fingerprinting will only apply to new applicants, it may take at least a year for the database to prove its worth.

The asylum seekers' fingerprints will be stored for up to 10 years in Eurodac.

An independent body has already been set up to ensure the data will not be used by the police for other purposes and will not be passed on to the applicants' countries of origin.

The system will also go online in Norway and Iceland - which are not members of the EU - and, from 2004, in 10 future EU member states.

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  The BBC's Chris Morris reports from Brussels
"Officials hope it will restore public confidence in the asylum system"

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28 Jul 01 | Europe
13 Jun 02 | South Asia
31 May 02 | Europe
30 Sep 02 | In Depth
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