Italy feels left alone with its refugee problemImage: AP
August 25, 2009
The European Union has said it will take steps to correct illegal-immigration problems after Italy's renewed pleas for action. Rising waves of people are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The Italian coast guard on Tuesday picked up over 50 illegal migrants off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. They survived the dangerous crossing from Africa to Europe, unlike 73 Eritrean migrants who died last week during the crossing from Libya.
The incident had rekindled debate over a hard-line approach to illegal immigration adopted by the center-right government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Yet Interior Minister Franco Frattini said in a state radio interview on Tuesday that the European Union needed to "do more" to counter illegal immigration. Frattini has repeatedly said that Mediterranean EU members should not be left alone to bear the burden of illegal arrivals from the shores of North Africa.
Frattini also defended the Italian government's policies.
New EU proposals
The EU in turn has said it is busy reforming its immigration policy and will present proposals next month.
According to Swedish Immigration Minister Tobias Billstroem, the proposals concern a so-called "relocation" policy. Billstroem told the news agency AFP this would involve transferring refugees who land on the shores of Europe's Mediterranean countries to other EU member states.
Billstroem said the relocation project would be presented in September by the vice-president of the European Commission and EU justice commissioner, Jacques Barrot.
In addition, a more efficient asylum policy was planned, said Billstroem, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency. This involved establishing refugee quotas in the EU; a corresponding proposal was also expected in September, he said.
The EU member states' application of the proposed policies, however, would be voluntary, Billstroem said.
Billstroem's remarks followed similar statements by Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on the sidelines of a conference in the Italian town of Rimini this past weekend. Bildt said the European Commission would issue a policy draft in time for a scheduled EU foreign ministers meeting at the end of October.
This would only be a first step, Bildt said, since "such a big problem cannot be solved in a single meeting."
EU serves coordinating purpose
According to figures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 67,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2008 in an attempt to enter Europe illegally. Some of them have died at sea.
Italy, Malta, Spain and Greece have repeatedly asked the EU to help them share the burden of dealing with these refugees. Yet European Commission spokesman Dennis Abbott said the role of the EU's executive arm was a coordinating one. It was up to the 27 member states to police their borders and set asylum policy, he said.
"We are well aware of the extreme difficulties and the problems which some Mediterranean countries are faced with, and the need to better share the burden at the European level," Abbott said. "It is about finding the right balance, but we are talking about national competences."
He said directives from Brussels were not the only way to tackle the problem.
"We spend a lot of money helping third countries to improve facilities so that people do not actually want to leave them in the first place," he told AFP.