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EU interior ministers debate asylum influx

The idea to set up transit camps in northern Africa for Europe-bound asylum seekers to avert fatal Mediterranean boat drowning is being discussed again in Brussels. Austria is in favor. Germany is hesitant.

Austria's Johanna Mikl-Leitner told fellow EU interior ministers on Thursday that the idea deserved "intensive" discussion. Germany's Thomas de Maizière said it "could be a solution," but needed time for discussion. Other EU nations opposed the proposition.

More than 3,000 migrants drowned or died of hypothermia while trying to cross the Mediterranean and slip into Europe last year, despite the expressions of anguish and promises of change after 360 died off Lampedusa in 2012.

Under the proposal, the UN refugee agency, which has been highly critical of EU inaction on drownings, would run the transit camps, where asylum-seekers would wait while their applications for asylum in Europe were assessed.

For those rejected there would be monetary incentives to return home.

Pilot project by summer?

Austria's Mikl-Leitner demanded that the European Commission present a pilot project before the European summer.

It would deter smugglers who profit from supplying boats. In addition, quotas needed to be set to distribute approved applicants to EU nations, she said.

A cautious De Maizìere said ministers would "perhaps" develop a pilot scheme but should first discuss the proposition "very carefully."

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the Düsseldorf-based Rheinische Post newspaper that he doubted whether applicants in northern Africa camps would enjoy all the legal rights they were otherwise entitled to applying within the EU.

"When the refugees see these centers not as doors but as a wall then unfortunately they won't let themselves be dissuaded from seeking their way across the sea," Maas said.

'Fake debate'

The Frankfurt-based organization Pro Asyl ("Pro Asylum," in German) described the discussion as a "fake debate."

Such transit camps would be "completely unsuitable to ameliorate the catastrophe at Europe's door," Pro Asyl said. It said the idea disguised the fact that Europe was looking on unmoved while people died at sea and along Europe's external borders.

The interior affairs spokesman of Germany's opposition Left party, Ulla Jelpke, on Thursday called for humanitarian visas to be issued so refugees could enter for the duration of an asylum-application procedure.

EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud, referring to last year's scaling back of frontier patrols, said if Europe wanted to talk seriously about ways to fix the Mediterranean tragedy then it needed to "talk about financing it seriously."

Alone in Italy, more than 170,000 people arrived in 2014 after being picked up by merchant, navy and coastguard ships.

Database checks at airports?

EU justice ministers, also meeting in Brussels, were also considering a proposal for database checks on terrorism suspects as they traveled abroad or returned home.

The idea became an EU priority after January's terror attacks in Paris that claimed 17 victims.

If imposed, it would see passport scanners installed at all airports, seaports and land entry points. Some EU nations object citing privacy and human rights concerns.

On Friday, justice ministers, including their current Latvian chairman Rihards Kozlovskis, will discuss ways to avert youth radicalization while in prison.

ipj/msh (AP, AFP, dpa)

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