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Members of the European parliament adopted tough new rules yesterday on illegal immigrants, allowing detention for up to 18 months prior to expulsion.

The measures, which could come into force in 2010, have been criticised by human rights groups, as well as the UN's top human rights official.

Adopted in Strasbourg by 367 votes to 206 with 109 abstentions, the new rules focus on illegal immigrants -- visa-overstayers are the biggest category and estimated at some 12 million people -- but not refugees who want to seek asylum in Europe.

They will oblige authorities in EU nations to choose between issuing residency or other permits to people coming in illegally from outside the bloc or returning them to their countries of origin.

Those denied residency have two options: "return" home or face "removal."

Should he or she -- the rules also involve children -- decline to go voluntarily, the individual would be forced to leave and face being banned from EU territory for five years.

As far as forced expulsions are concerned, authorities could decide to keep individuals in custody for up to six months -- 18 months under exceptional circumstances -- particularly if they are deemed a flight risk.

This could also happen if their home countries are slow to provide personal documents and information.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the new regulations during a press conference in Geneva on Wednesday, saying EU countries would do better to look at ratifying the UN convention on rights for migrant workers.

Arbour noted the "difficulty in advancing the fundamental principles of the protection of individuals' rights who are in a very vulnerable situation" and regretted the "resistance in public opinion" to the idea that the illegal migrants have the same rights as others in society.

Amnesty International said the measures do not ensure that illegal immigrants are returned to their home countries safely and in dignity.

"On the contrary, an excessive period of detention of up to 1.5 years as well as an EU-wide re-entry ban for those forcibly returned, risks lowering existing standards ... and sets an extremely bad example," a statement said.

Currently nine EU states set no limit at all on the amount of time that people can be detained. Many others have far shorter custody times than the six months the so-called "return directive" will introduce.

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