Europe's Mediterranean countries bear an unfair share of the refugee burden from Africa, overwhelming their capacity to cope. Amnesty and others support an EU wide migration policy guided by humanitarian principles.
Unable to cope with desperate flow from Africa, Malta is turning its back on refugees
Malta, which joined the EU in 2004, is now at the forefront of a battle against illegal immigration, as scores of desperate African migrants in fishing boats risk their lives to reach European shores.
Many migrants hope that if they make it from the Libyan coast to the tiny Mediterranean island, which is south of Sicily, they can start a new life anywhere in the European Union.
Malta, which has been the destination of more than 7,000 illegal refugees over the past few years, is refusing to accept any more newcomers now, leaving boatloads of Africans either to their fate in the turbulent Mediterranean waters or in detention camps behind barbed wire.
On Monday at a Berlin symposium, the human rights organization Amnesty International lambasted the European Union for its failure to support Malta in its struggle to deal with the human tide from the Horn of Africa.
Mediterranean countries unfairly burdened
It is the southern rim of the EU that is feeling the strain – Malta, Spain and Italy, countries which want the rest of the bloc to do their fair share in taking in the illegal immigrants.
The Spanish Canary Islands off the western coast of Africa, a favorite holiday destination for German and British tourists, was inundated with more than 30,000 refugees last year. And Lampedusa, an Italian island which is closer to Tunisia than it is to mainland Italy, has also been targeted by a continuous flow of migrants from countries such as Senegal, Mauritius or Eritrea.
Refugee in detention camps or left to fate at sea
Amnesty said that EU countries still have capacities for immigration and called for a European wide asylum policy guided by humanitarian principles.
At last week's meeting, the EU interior ministers brushed aside Malta's plea for a fair distribution of the immigrants among all EU member states. Fears in European capitals of a tidal wave from Africa are unfounded however, speakers at the symposium said.
Number of asylum seekers dropped drastically
The number of asylum-seekers in Germany for example has dropped from more than 400,000 in the mid-1990s to merely 20,000 last year.
There are huge capacities within the EU to absorb more people in need of help, according to Richard Williams of the human rights group European Council for Refugees in Exile (ECRE), who called for an easing of immigration laws across Europe.
"We've created an asylum system that is so harsh, where the chances of being detained are very high, where the chances of being refused asylum on spurious grounds are very high, and the chances of being sent back to a country where you don't feel safe, are very high," Williams told DW-RADIO. "People feel safer not to apply for asylum -- to still come, but to remain underground."
The existing patchwork of national laws fosters illegal immigration, said Peter Altmaier, undersecretary in the German interior ministry in a radio interview. At present there are 20 different national policies in the 27 member bloc, which apply very different treatment standards to refugees, but the European Commission wants harmonized rules to be in place by 2010.
"We have to fight illegal immigration because these people are exploited by criminal organizations," Altmaier said. "At the same time we have to offer perspectives for legal migration. And we also need a very strong humanitarian signal that we cannot allow people to die in the Mediterranean Sea."
EU interested in common asylum policy
EU needs a common migration policy
The EU's external border agency Frontex will soon begin patrolling the waters off Malta to rescue illegal immigrants, Altmaier said. However Amnesty claimed that boat commanders are usually told to keep the refugees off territorial waters instead of guiding them safely ashore in Europe. Although Frontex has 100 vessels as well as 50 planes and helicopters at its disposal, the aid provided by its response team has been patchy.
It is in the interest of the entire EU, not just the Mediterranean rim's "front line states" to absorb asylum seekers, according to Williams. Many who have made it to Italy's shores for example, migrate further north anyway, and lodge applications for asylum status in more than a single EU country, a practice called "asylum shopping."
ECRE's Williams argued that the free movement of people across the borders of most EU countries provided by the Schengen accords means that common rules and safeguards on migration are vital.