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Maltese Interior Minister Tonio Borg called on his European Union counterparts to help his country deal with a wave of illegal migrants trying to reach Europe.
Malta has appealed for more solidarity within the EU regarding illegal immigration
"The situation right now is a complete mess," Borg told reporters in Luxembourg ahead of a meeting of EU interior ministers on Tuesday. "It's a free for all."
"Each year 600 immigrants are dying -- this is a very conservative estimate I must say -- on the threshold of Europe. The figure could rise again this year," he said.
Several boats with illegal migrants have recently capsized in the waters between the Mediterranean island and Libya. Eighteen bodies were found in the zone last month by a French ship.
Borg said he would urge EU countries to help with "burden sharing" by accepting any would-be immigrants who are rescued in international waters.
"It is only fair that those immigrants who are saved are distributed on a rotational basis between the 27 EU member states," he said.
"Temporarily those immigrants should go to the nearest European state until they are transferred to the designated country of destination," he said.
The country of destination would be chosen based on size and population.
A tough task
Sweden hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the EU
EU diplomats have said that Borg faces a tough task in convincing his EU partners to help. Many countries agree on the need to save people but few are keen to take responsibility for illegal migrants once they are safely ashore.
Some believe it would be better to work closely with the countries that people are fleeing or crossing to reach Europe, concerned that "burden sharing" might appear to immigrants as a "free ticket" to move deeper into the EU.
"I don't think that this is a free flight to go to Paris," Borg said. "I think that the desperation of these people is very evident."
"They first cross the desert... and if they survive that they try to cross the Mediterranean and if they survive that then they are accepted or saved by the European authorities.
He said that the number of people arriving was small in EU terms but that Malta, with a population of around 400,000, had to bear the heaviest load in dealing with a problem that has significantly grown in recent weeks.
"From the beginning of this year our coast guard has saved 350 (people), 250 of whom in the past 10-15 days," he said.
Describing himself as a pragmatic politician, Borg said he was not expecting miracles from Tuesday's talks.
"A commitment, that would be ideal ... but at least that the discussion will start," he said
The European Commission hopes to harmonize asylum rules across the union
Despite a commitment to an EU-wide common asylum system, member states not only take different approaches to asylum claims but also apply very different standards of treatment to asylum seekers.
Sweden, for instance, has demanded that other EU countries take in more vulnerable people fleeing Iraq and has also called for a further harmonization of widely differing asylum procedures in the EU.
Some 9,000 Iraqis found a new home in Sweden last year. Stockholm expects some 20,000 more this year. Sweden grants refugee status or other protection to almost all Iraqi asylum seekers.
EU diplomats said the number of Iraqis seeking refuge in the bloc was likely to reach 40,000 this year. Around 20,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in the EU in 2006, which is, compared to 2005, an increase of 77 percent.
EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini
EU ministers earlier this year said that there was no need for resettlement of Iraqis inside the EU and added that the Iraqi refugee crisis must be tackled in the region.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has slammed member states for a lack of solidarity in hosting asylum seekers and dealing with refugee crisis and wants to use the meeting in Luxembourg to drum up support for new plans aimed at harmonizing asylum rules across the EU.
Currently, there are some 20 different systems of asylum in the 27-nation bloc. The commission, the EU's executive arm, wants to have more harmonized rules in place by 2010.
About 500,000 illegal immigrants enter the EU each year
EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini is expected to use the Luxembourg meeting to rebuke governments for not fulfilling pledges to send technical equipment for the bloc's border control agency Frontex.
Boats, helicopters and planes needed to patrol the EU's southern maritime borders existed only "on paper," Frontex said Monday.
About 500,000 illegal immigrants enter the EU each year, mainly from poor African countries.
The bloc has responded by stepping up border controls, with so-called "frontline" states, Spain, Italy and Malta, demanding even tougher measures against illegals.
EU officials have accused Maltese authorities of failing to meet their international duties to save lives by refusing to admit migrants rescued by vessels outside its search and rescue area.
Officials in Malta deny they have ever left migrants at sea in distress.
Illegal immigration is driven mainly by economic forces
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued an appeal to the German EU presidency to set up a rescue plan for immigrants in distress at sea.
"The EU must draw consequences and investigate the latest incidents," said Amnesty's director for Europe, Dick Oostings.
EU ministers are also expected to discuss commission proposals to introduce tough sanctions for employers of illegal migrants, including heavy fines and prison sentences for the worst offenders.
The commission argues that the prospect of finding an illicit job in the EU was the main driving force behind illegal immigration. But the plan could run into fierce opposition from some member states as the EU does not have the competence to interfere with matters of criminal law.