Nine European Union nations urged the European Parliament on Thursday to set aside privacy concerns and back plans for an EU-wide passenger data list aimed at thwarting suspected militants traveling from Europe to fight in Syria.
EU governments say hundreds of their citizens are joining rebel forces battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They fear some of these newly-trained fighters - estimated at up to 600 people - will return home to carry out attacks in Europe.
Complicating authorities' efforts to track the potential extremists is the absence of a European system to store airline passengers' personal details. Experts believe most Europeans fly to Turkey before crossing the porous border into Syria.
Concerned about privacy rights, the European Parliament in April rejected a plan that would have set up a “Passenger Name Record” (PNI) with phone numbers, addresses and credit card details of passengers entering or leaving the EU. Airlines would have been required to furnish the information to governments.
Such information is already shared with the United States but not among all EU states. Sixteen EU governments collect passenger data but do not pass it on to their neighbors.
The interior ministers of France and Belgium, Manuel Valls and Joelle Milquet, said in a joint statement they and ministers from seven other EU nations would petition the European Parliament committee which is now re-examining the text.
Besides France and Belgium, ministers from Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Britain and Sweden signed a letter addressed to the head of the parliamentary committee on justice and home affairs, Jose Lopez-Aguillar. A copy of the letter was not immediately available.
The letter underlined “the importance, for the security of the European Union and those who live within it, of being able to quickly have at our disposal a PNR system offering a high level of privacy protection,” the statement said.
The EU's counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, called in May for urgent action to counter what he called the “serious problem” of 'jihadists' traveling from Europe to Syria in large numbers.
One of 22 measures de Kerchove suggested was to highlight to the European Parliament the importance of a PNR system that would allow member states to track suspicious travel movements.
The issue is particularly worrying in France, which has been on heightened security alert since January, when it intervened in Mali to repel al Qaeda-linked rebels.
“Maybe 50 [French nationals] are still on the ground [in Syria], 40 are in transit and about 30 have returned and are under surveillance by our services,” Valls said last month, adding that a “handful” had been killed in fighting.
In June, police arrested about a dozen people from two suspected cells who they said were preparing to fight in Syria.
The extent of the problem surfaced in July when a video posted on YouTube showed a 30-year-old French convert to Islam, accompanied by his younger brother, exhorting his “Muslim brothers” to join him in Syria to take up Jihad.
The man from the southern city of Toulouse had been under surveillance by police for a year, according to French media, before traveling to Syria via Spain, Tunisia and Turkey.
More than 100,000 people have been killed and nearly two million have fled abroad since the Syrian uprising against Assad began 28 months ago.