Elite teams of EU border guards will be sent to Europe's southern frontiers at short notice to combat illegal migration, under plans unveiled by the European Commission.
The move would mean the creation of a permanent rapid reaction force of 250-300 experts who could be dispatched within 10 days to deal with sudden movements of population.
It follows an experiment in the Canary Islands, which saw a sudden influx of migrants and where Spanish border guards were reinforced by a fact-finding mission from other member states. Four boats and two aircraft have been promised but have yet to arrive.
The European Commission also proposed setting up a database to register all third-country nationals entering or leaving the EU to help member states check whether a migrant was overstaying illegally. That system could be used to register seasonal workers too.
But the immediate priority is to help the EU's southern frontiers, including Malta, Greece and Italy's southern islands, from being overrun by African migrants risking their lives as they seek to reach Europe by sea.
One case which illustrates the problem is that of 51 Africans picked up by a Spanish boat in Libyan waters, which has docked in Malta only to find the authorities there refusing to accept the migrants.
This year more than 11,000 illegal immigrants have travelled by boat to the Canary Islands, off the north-west coast of Africa - nearly double the total for all of 2005. That has provoked a humanitarian crisis and given the authorities a massive administrative problem.
Spain has struggled to shelter and process the newcomers and requested help in May. The plans announced yesterday, which need the agreement of national governments, would put such operations on a formal legal basis and create an international team of experts working for the EU's external border agency, Frontex.
These would include translators and interpreters, people trained to identify migrants' countries of origin and those versed in risk assessment and who can use intelligence to predict movement of people. There would also be medical staff to administer first aid and isolate anyone thought to be suffering from a contagious disease.
Franco Frattini, the European justice and home affairs Commissioner, said: "The idea is to have at the disposal of Frontex a permanent team of 250-300 people from the member states which will be able to intervene quickly at the request of a member state and ... [within] 10 days from the request. We're talking about helping member states that are under particular, unexpected pressure. We're not talking about normal border checks."
Members of these special units would remain employed by their national authorities and would continue to wear their uniforms while sporting an armband with the EU flag. Mr Frattini wants to get agreement on rules that would spell out the powers given to the new teams.
Chris Nash, the legal officer for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, said: "We support measures which increase capacity of EU member states to identify asylum-seekers and assess their claims. But we would be concerned about measures which exclusively focus on controlling borders and maintaining Fortress Europe, as these have had unfortunate consequences already."
The initiative is open only to countries associated with the Schengen free travel zone, of which the UK and Republic of Ireland are not members. However, Britain has launched a court case to try to win access to such schemes and, if it wins, might take part in the rapid-reaction force.Reuse content