Theresa May stressed that Britain would not accept migrants fleeing Libya and Tunisia as divisions opened within the European Union yesterday over how to respond to the crisis of refugees from North Africa.
The Home Secretary is resisting calls from Italy, which has borne the brunt of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, for other EU countries to "share the burden" of accommodating the new arrivals. Britain is offering to help the Italian government cope with the refugees, but insisting none will be given shelter in the UK.
A spokesman for the Home Secretary said: "A common asylum system or new laws will not resolve the unprecedented influx of migrants at Europe's Mediterranean border. Britain has offered Italy practical assistance to help maintain their border controls and asylum processes. Those seeking international protection are expected to claim asylum in the first safe country they enter."
Muammar Gaddafi has threatened to provoke a full-blown migration crisis in Europe in retaliation for the bombing raids in Libya.
France and Italy have raised the possibility of temporarily reintroducing Europe's internal frontier checks, 13 years after the Schengen Agreement scrapped border controls between all EU countries except Britain and Ireland. It is regarded by many member states as a cornerstone of European policy, but an attempt could be made to modify it at next month's summit of EU leaders.
David Cameron would not participate in those discussions, but one UK Government source said yesterday: "The situation vindicates our long-standing position that we will not take part in Schengen."
At yesterday's special meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels, which Ms May attended, Germany led the opposition to countries turning their backs on the agreement. The Hungarian Minister Sandor Pinter, who presided at the meeting, said: "The majority view is that one country should not be in a position to make a decision like that."
Denmark came under heavy fire at the meeting after announcing it would reinstate border controls to tackle illegal immigration.