Europe acts on illegal immigration
CAHORS, France (CNN) -- Moves to stem the flow of illegal immigrants have been agreed at meetings across Europe.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac agreed to impose tighter controls on their countries' cross-Channel rail link, in an effort to stem record numbers of bogus asylum seekers slipping into Britain.
In a separate move in Stockholm, European Union ministers vowed at the end of a two-day informal meeting to push for a common approach to combat human trafficking, especially of women and children for the sex trade.
The trade in illegal immigrants is worth more than $30 billion a year and has become a lucrative market for organised crime syndicates.
Britain had the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe last year -- with many entering from France.
Blair is keen to be seen acting to curb the flow of illegal immigrants being smuggled into the UK, especially in the run-up to an expected May general election.
Officials said French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had promised Blair during talks in the southern French city of Cahors, that France would ratify an accord by June which would allow immigration officers from both countries to check passengers boarding cross-channel trains in Paris.
The agreement closes a loophole which allowed up to 400 people a month to arrive in London and claim asylum.
"This route is clearly being used by people, so it is an important step forward," a spokeswoman for Blair said.
Britain sees record numbers of asylum seekers
Asylum applications reached a record 76,000 in Britain last year -- up from just 4,000 at the end of the Cold War a decade ago. Another 100,000 applications are waiting to be assessed.
The agreement follows a proposal earlier this week by British Home Secretary Jack Straw to review the 50-year-old Geneva Convention on refugees to face the current situation.
He has urged the EU to draw up a list of safe nations from which asylum applications would automatically be ruled out.
He said on Friday: "Economic pressures mean that all the European countries are attractive to people who are not in reality seeking asylum but seeking work.
"They come behind the asylum rules to try to break through the immigration controls, so it is a common problem."
The EU closed their two-day meeting on Friday with the commitment that they would speed up common measures to stamp out human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.
Antonio Vitorino, EU Justice Commissioner, said the 15 member countries should agree on common sanctions of a minimum six-year sentence for traffickers by July.
Investigating magistrates from different EU nations will be allowed to work together more effectively.
It is estimated that some 500,000 women and girls alone enter Europe as illegal immigrants every year.
In Scandinavia, Russian and Baltic women are brought in for prostitution, while ports like Antwerp, in Belgium, attract many African women who are then forced to sell sex.
In Paris and other cities, Chinese pay off their debt to traffickers by working long days in textile sweatshops.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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