British plan for asylum camps wins support

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The Independent Online

Italy and Germany have won backing for controversial moves to stem the tide of migrants into Europe by setting up asylum camps outside the EU.

The idea, once one of Tony Blair's pet projects, was rejected by most European governments last year, but is now gathering support and will be discussed at a meeting this week. Britain supports the move in principle and other countries, including Spain and the Netherlands are open to it.

Amnesty International said it was extremely concerned about the idea, also opposed by some EU governments including Sweden. Amnesty said it was worried that asylum-seekers could be left to the mercy of nations with poor human rights records.

Italy has already identified Libya as a site for asylum camps, and other countries, including Tunisia, Egypt and Ukraine could be in the frame. One strong possibility is that a small group of EU countries could agree to co-operate.

Italy's Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, told Il Messaggero newspaper, after meeting Libyan officials: "The camps will go ahead. There was never a problem with the proposal; there were only polemics that ended up in newspapers."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "We have not yet seen the detail of the proposal but we agree there is a real need to work more closely with countries in north Africa to stem the flow of irregular migration crossing the Mediterranean. We recognise the importance of co-operating with our European partners in this and are happy to discuss ways in which we can work together."

Germany's Interior Minister, Otto Schilly, said the proposal would save lives by reducing the number of people who drown as they try to cross illegally into the EU. And there is support from the incoming European commissioner for justice and home affairs, Italy's Rocco Buttiglione.

In June 2003, Britain was forced to drop similar ideas after pressure from Sweden and France which said they breached international law. But Italy is talking about a less draconian scheme than the UK, which wanted the right to deport asylum-seekers to camps outside the EU while their applications were processed.

The Italian and German plan seems designed to preventing would-be refugees from leaving Libya before their cases have been examined. Questions remain, including the issue of who would accept those judged genuine refugees, and what would happen to those rejected. France says it still needs to be convinced of the merits of the scheme, a diplomatic formulation that implies that it would not block the plans. But critics say transit camps would become a magnate for economic migrants and people traffickers. They cite the example of the Sangatte camp in France which was closed after repeated requests from Britain.

The ideas are to be discussed at an informal meeting of EU justice and interior ministers this week, then at a meeting of the five biggest EU countries next month. With Sweden opposed, the EU is unlikely to give its unanimous blessing. But groups of countries could operate as an advanced guard within the EU or work together outside its legal framework.