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EU Proposes Office to Coordinate Asylum Issues

The European Commission has proposed setting up an office to coordinate how some 100,000 asylum seekers are admitted into the bloc each year. Currently, asylum laws vary widely between countries.

Somalian refugees at a center in Malta

European countries have very different ways of dealing with asylum seekers

The European Union moved a step closer to getting its member states to apply EU asylum laws consistently on Wednesday as the European Commission formally proposed the creation of an office dedicated to the issue.

"It is essential that we align not only our laws but also our practices," EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot told journalists.

The EU began setting up common rules on asylum-seekers as long ago as 2004, but officials complain that there are immense differences between how member states apply the laws.

According to commission figures, Iraqis seeking asylum in Europe can face anything from a two percent chance of acceptance to a 71 percent chance, depending on the country in which they apply. People fleeing areas such as Chechnya and Somalia face similar problems.

Europe wants better cooperation

In April, EU member states agreed that the asylum system was not working properly, and called for the creation of an EU-level office to "facilitate exchanges of information, analyses and experience ... and develop concrete cooperation" between national asylum offices.

Faces of several refugees who arrived by boat to the Canary Islands

Southern European countries have asked for help in dealing with refugees

The commission's formal proposal foresees an office to coordinate member states' information on the current state of security in the countries from which asylum-seekers come, and on effective ways to deal with new applicants.

The office would also gather information on the ways different member states apply the EU's asylum laws.

Under the proposal, the EU would send support teams to countries that receive a particularly high number of asylum applicants in order to help them with such issues as interpretation.

Southern Europe wants additional help

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, some 100,000 people sought asylum in the EU in the first half of 2008. The highest numbers were in France (15,500), Britain (14,500) and Sweden (12,000).

Of the applicants, some 14,000 came from Iraq, just over 8,000 came from the Russian Federation, 6,000 came from Somalia and 5,700 came from Pakistan.

Additionally, more than 67,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea, with half of them arriving in Italy and Malta, the agency reported. Southern European countries have asked for more help to combat illegal immigration.

The proposal must now be approved by EU member states, which will also have to decide which country will host the office - a process traditionally accompanied by fierce national lobbying.

Commission officials say that if the measure is quickly approved, the office could begin work in 2010.

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