After debating proposals put forward by Germany's Otto Schily, the European Commission has agreed to set up pilot schemes in five North African countries to cope with the influx of refugees heading to Europe.
Refugees will be processed in Africa before heading to the EU
The European Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will set up pilot schemes in five North African countries to help them cope with the flow of refugees seeking to cross into Europe, EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Antonio Vitorino said Friday.
The commission, the executive arm of the European Union, and the Netherlands have proposed to fund a scheme to help Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya develop their asylum laws, train personnel capable of processing asylum demands in close cooperation with the UNHCR. It will fund 80 percent and the Dutch 20 percent of the €1 million ($1.2 million) project.
Vitorino stressed that the centers would not treat asylum demands for EU countries but that the refugees could ask asylum only in the country where such a center is.
"The asylum system will remain the national system for each state (in the pilot scheme)," Vitorino told a press conference after an informal meeting of EU ministers of justice and home affairs.
The UNHCR is already running similar projects in several African and central European countries.
Treatment of refugees to be regulated
One of the conditions is that African countries participating have to sign the Geneva Convention regulating the treatment of refugees. This condition will mean that Libya will have to sign the Geneva Convention.
Otto Schily, German Interior Minister.
The pilot schemes are not to be confused with the idea put forward by German home affairs minister Otto Schily to set up an EU body outside Europe to receive and examine asylum applications, Vitorino stressed.
Even if none of the ministers has vetoed the idea of examining asylum demands outside the EU, they appear to be deeply divided over the practicalities of such a plan.
"The question of whether asylum demands can possibly be handled outside the EU will be looked at very carefully," said Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, who presided over the informal discussion.
EU seeks firm cooperation
Vitorino said the commission kept an open mind regarding such talks but named a number of fundamental conditions. The commission wants firm cooperation with third countries, clarity on how judicial review will be handled if asylum demands are decided upon outside the EU, plans for the resettlement of failed asylum seekers and working towards a common EU asylum system.
But these are all long-term projects and Vitorino also spoke of the humanitarian crisis currently taking place in the Mediterranean where hundreds of illegal immigrants try to reach the European mainland by boats.
Refugees arrive in Italy in bad physical states after days at sea.
"There is agreement that we should be proactive in dealing with the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean to prevent (it) from turning into a graveyard," he said. Illegal immigrants intercepted in EU territorial waters are to be dealt with within the EU countries but those caught in international waters are to be sent back to North Africa and held in humanitarian centers there.