Despite a lukewarm reception in the EU, Berlin and Rome intend to press ahead with a controversial plan to create holding asylum camps for European-bound migrants in North Africa as a means to combat illegal immigration.
Germany's Schröder and Italy's Berlusconi in Rome on Wednesday
Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu has described a proposal to set up North African transit camps for illegal immigrants as a humane solution in the fight against human trafficking. Italy, which has been swamped by a recent wave of would-be asylum seekers landing on its southern shores, has joined forces with Germany to hammer out a plan for combating what the two governments see as a major European issue.
Addressing foreign journalists in Rome ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart on Wednesday, Pisanu likened illegal immigration to the slave trade for its dangers and brutality. The minister said the issue had a high priority because human traffickers had no qualms about endangering the lives of the European-bound migrants by selling them one-way tickets on rickety boats that often can't make it across the Mediterranean.
The proposal to create transit camps in Libya for processing immigrants before they headed for Europe was first brought up by German Interior Minister Otto Schily after a German aid relief ship full of African refugees was stranded on the Italian island of Lampedusa in August.
Combatting illegal immigration
Aware that the proposal has met with criticism from human rights groups and other EU member states, particularly France and Spain, the Italian minister made clear that the detention centers can in no way be described as "concentration camps," as they have often been referred to in past discussions.
"The idea of creating reception centers for immigration candidates is one of the measures in the campaign against illegal immigration," the minister said. "I don't think they can be called concentration camps."
A boat carrying would-be immigrants from Africa docks at Lampedusa island's harbour, south of Sicily.
Pisanu admitted the proposal was "controversial" and would have to be closely examined "so as to fully explain it to those who are concerned about it." At the same time he said Europe cannot ignore the growing number of illegal immigrants knocking on its doors.
A European problem
"There are countries who have not yet been invaded by illegal immigrants and which think there's no problem. They're wrong because sooner or later illegal immigrants will arrive in their countries as well," Pisanu argued.
"Clandestine immigration will double in the next 50 years and will even concern the extreme north of Europe. That's why it's wise to confront the problem straight away," said the minister.
"Immigration is a European-wide problem," Pisanu said, a view German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is also likely to stress during his talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi later on Wednesday.
The issue is expected to be a topic of discussion at the end of the week when interior ministers from Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain converge in Florence for two days of discussions.