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#EuropeanParliament this week: Asylum rules in Denmark, trade secrets, the European Central Bank

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20150610PHT65056_originalIn a week squeezed between two Strasbourg plenary sessions, MEPs discuss, among other issues, the Danish plan to seize asylum seekers’ assets, in compensation for the costs of their stay in the country. In other news, Parliament's Legal Affairs committee votes on the protection of companies from the misuse of their trade secrets, and the Budget Control committee examine cases of fraud against the EU budget. Find out about the main topics in Parliament this week.

Should asylum seekers be made to cover the costs of their stay with whatever valuables they are found to be carrying on them? A draft Danish law says they should, in return for the accommodation and all services the authorities provide to them. Others argue this means taking away even cherished heirlooms and other possessions they had brought with them from their homes on their flight from tragedy. The Civil Liberties committee discusses the issue on Monday afternoon.

A draft directive, allowing companies demand compensation if someone steals their trade secrets, will be voted in the Legal Affairs committee on Thursday (28 January). In talks with EU governments, MEPs made sure this right would not be used to prevent whistle-blowers and journalists from performing their duty.

New rules ensuring EU fees charged by ports on their users are both transparent and open to comparison, is to be voted in the Transport committee on Monday.

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Foreign Affairs MEPs vote on Thursday their annual reports on the progress of Serbia’s bid for EU membership and on Kosovo’s reforms sensed to clear the way towards further European integration.

The Budgetary Control Committee will make recommendations on how to prevent and fight fraud and misuse of EU funding in a report to be voted on Thursday, based on the Commission’s findings on the implementation of the 2014 budget.

Economic committee MEPs vote on Monday to set out their position on the annual report of the European Central Bank, and discuss in a public hearing the pros and cons of virtual currencies such as BitCoin.

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A report on mass surveillance and its impact on EU citizens’ fundamental rights, prepared by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, is to be presented by the agency’s director Michael O'Flaherty in the Civil Liberties committee on Monday.

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Civil liberties

#ChildMarriages: MEPs discuss how to put an end to this scourge

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One in every three girls in developing countries is married before turning 18, and one in nine before 15. Child marriages limit future prospects as children are usually forced to drop out of school. Girls also face dangerous complications from pregnancy and childbirth, the leading causes of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. They are also at great risk from suffering abuse. On 11 April Parliament's women's rights and human rights subcommittee discussed the issue with experts.

Child marriage affects both girls and boys, but girls are most at risk, representing 82% of the children married. The child marriage rate is slowly declining worldwide, but population growth will increase the number of people living with the consequences of a child marriage: 950 million by 2030 (compared to 700 million today).

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Child marriages occur on all continents but the highest rates are found in South Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa. The three countries with the highest rates of child marriage are Niger (77% of women are married before the age of 18), Bangladesh (74%) and Chad (69%). In a resolution adopted in plenary last week, MEPs called on the Bangladesh government to close the loopholes in their legislation on child marriages, allowing exemptions to the minimum age of 18 for women and 21 for men.

The factors driving child marriages
The causes of child marriages include poverty, gender inequality and parent´s fear for their children's security. Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish member of the EPP group, said she had spoken to parents in refugee camps who saw marriage as the best way to provide their children with a future.

A recent study among Syrian refugees in Lebanon found that 24% of refugee girls between 15 and 17 were already married. Estimates indicate that child marriage rates are four times higher among Syrian refugees than among Syrians before the conflict.

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How to tackle it

Experts and MEPs stressed the importance of working directly with the children and the communities to change social norms, guarantee access to health, education and legal services and ensure a strong and legal framework.

“Parliaments everywhere should adopt laws to protect children and in particular not deny girls of their dignity and ability to make fundamental choices in their own lives,” said Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian member of the S&D group, chair of the human rights subcommittee and co-chair of the hearing.

Professor Benyam Dawit Mezmur, chair of the UN committee on children's rights, stressed the importance of the role of regional organisations, while and Fredrik Malmberg, the Swedish ombudsman for children, called on EU countries to end double standards for asylum seekers. “Our legislation and our institutions should provide equal protection from all children,” he said.

Ms Vilija BLINKEVIČIŪTĖ (S&D, LT), Chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and co-chair of the hearing remained that child and early marriage can be significantly lowered by education and economic empowerment for women.

“Tackling child marriage gives us an entry point to address a whole range of other issues,” said Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Girls not Brides. She said child marriages could hold back other development efforts, “such as ending violence against women, keeping children in school, or getting rid of HIV/Aids”.

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Civil liberties

UK #Magnitsky Asset Freezing Legislation passed the second reading in the House of Lords 

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magnitsky_edited-1The UK House of Lords approved in its second reading the Magnitsky asset freezing legislation, which will allow the British government to freeze the assets of human rights abusers. The bill is now slated for a line-by-line examination in the House of Lords on 28 March 2017. 
“I welcome the fact that we have taken action, sending a clear statement that we will not allow human rights abusers to launder their criminal assets through the UK,” said Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State at the Home Office, introducing the proposed Magnitsky legislation.
Under this new legislation, assets of those involved in gross human rights violations abroad will be subject to civil recovery by the British government. The initiative was inspired by the case of Sergei Magnitsky:
“We have amended the Bill ... to allow for the civil recovery of any proceeds of gross human rights abuse overseas. This amendment was prompted by the horrific treatment of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer. ...Magnitsky’s treatment was truly shocking, and it is only one example of the many atrocious human rights violations committed globally every year,” said Baroness Williams of Trafford.
Baroness Stern said:
“The victims of grand corruption are too many to count... The Magnitsky amendment represents a huge step forward and I was very glad to hear the Minister talk about human rights abuses around the world in this connection. Some argue that grand corruption should be classified as a human rights abuse; I find that argument convincing.”
Lord Rooker said:
“I salute Mr Browder for his dedication and perseverance in trying to bring those guilty of the murder of his lawyer to justice... Chasing them legally around the world, and now in this Bill, is a must.”
Baroness Hamwee said:
“Corruption and the infringement of human rights go hand in hand. I welcome the Magnitsky amendment.”
In closing the debate, Baroness Williams of Trafford talked about the government ensuring that “the Magnitsky power will be used” in cases where there is evidence “to satisfy a court on the balance of probabilities that property in the UK is the proceeds of gross human
rights abuses or violations overseas.”
The events of the Magnitsky case are described in the international best-seller “Red Notice” by William Browder and in a series of Magnitsky justice campaign videos on Youtubechannel “Russian Untouchables.”

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Civil liberties

EU #HeadscarfBan ruling sparks faith group backlash

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heascarfCompanies may bar staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, the European Union's top court ruled on Tuesday (14 March), setting off a storm of complaint from rights groups and religious leaders, writes Alastair Macdonald.

In its first ruling on a hot political issue across Europe, the Court of Justice (ECJ) found a Belgian firm which had a rule barring employees who dealt with customers from wearing visible religious and political symbols may not have discriminated against a receptionist dismissed for wearing a headscarf.

The judgment on that and a French case came on the eve of a Dutch election in which Muslim immigration is a key issue and weeks before France votes for a president in a similarly charged campaign. French conservative candidate Francois Fillon hailed the ruling as "an immense relief" that would contribute to "social peace".

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But a campaign group backing the women said the ruling could shut many Muslim women out of the workforce. And European rabbis said the Court had added to rising incidences of hate crime to send a message that "faith communities are no longer welcome".

The judges in Luxembourg did find that the dismissals of the two women may, depending on the view of national courts, have breached EU laws against religious discrimination. They found in particular that the case of the French software engineer, fired after a customer complaint, may well have been discriminatory.

Reactions, however, focused on the conclusion that services firm G4S in Belgium was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality.

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The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality" offered by EU non-discrimination laws.

"In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination," policy office Maryam Hmadoun said.

"But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace."

Amnesty International welcomed the ruling on the French case that "employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients". But, it said, bans on religious symbols to show neutrality opened "a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".

The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, complained: "This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe". National court cases across Europe have included questions on the wearing of Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish skullcaps.

In the Belgian case, the ECJ said: "An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination."

It was for Belgian judges to determine whether she may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the rule put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage. But the rule could still be justified if it was "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner" to project an "image of neutrality".

However, in the case of Asma Bougnaoui, dismissed by French software company Micropole, it said it was up to French courts to determine whether there was such a rule. If her dismissal was based only on meeting the particular customer's preference, it saw "only very limited circumstances" in which a religious symbol could be objectively taken as reason for her not to work.

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