Brussels, 4 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of illegal immigrants landed on the small southern Italian island of Lampedusa on 1 October, just as EU ministers were meeting in The Hague to discuss the issue.
At those talks, Germany and Italy strongly argued for the creation -- in North Africa and possibly elsewhere -- of EU-managed processing camps for illegal immigrants, with the idea of preventing them from reaching the bloc's borders. Other countries -- among them France, Spain, and Sweden -- rejected the idea as legally suspect and potentially destabilizing for the host countries of the camps.
"What is happening now and in recent weeks in the Mediterranean is a human tragedy."
Today, top European Commission official Jonathan Faull briefed journalists in Brussels on the debate.
He said no decisions have been taken. He also indicated that although processing camps may not be viable in the short term, all EU member states agree that the "human tragedy" taking place on the Mediterranean must stop.
"The situation really is extremely worrying. You all know that what is happening now and in recent weeks in the Mediterranean is a human tragedy. Many, many people have lost their lives, and the subject we're dealing with therefore is one of considerable gravity," Faull said.
Faull said it is also agreed that the EU's "friends" to the south need help "with all due speed."
He said the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers attended the EU meeting by video link. The United Nations has been highly critical of talk about such processing camps. Officials say Lubbers limited the UNHCR's participation in any current EU plans to a modest 1 million euro ($1.2 million) scheme to strengthen the asylum and immigration services of five North African countries.
Faull today said all EU member states agree that plans currently under discussion should not be linked to proposals put forward by Britain last year. At that time, Britain suggested that external "processing centers" could be used to send back asylum seekers already present in the EU.
The plans spearheaded now by German Interior Minister Otto Schily are said to be different. Faull indicated their main aim is rather to stem the flow of immigrants across the Mediterranean.
"We should work on medium-term durable solutions to the current problems by helping the countries of North Africa develop their capacities to deal with migrants, with asylum seekers -- but migrants, generally -- present in their territory, or who are found in international waters between the countries of North Africa and the European Union, or in the waters of the countries concerned, but are not yet in the territory -- including our own territorial waters -- of the European Union," Faull said.
Faull's use of the designation "medium-term" suggests that full-blown "processing centers" in North Africa for EU-bound immigrants will not become a reality for a number of years.
He said this is partly due to the fact that "extremely complex" legal issues are involved. Currently, EU asylum claims can only be processed inside the bloc's borders. Mechanisms are also lacking to allow for the judicial review of procedures outside the EU. It is also unclear where appeals would be heard or whose jurisdiction would apply at any centers outside the EU.
Another problem is that the EU itself first needs to complete the development of a common asylum system.
Faull said there are now effectively 25 different sets of asylum laws in the EU -- as many as there are member states.
"That means that it is, at the moment, very hard to imagine how a European asylum system could be created outside the Union because, frankly, it wouldn't be clear which rules would be applied to people coming along and saying, 'I would like asylum in Europe, please.' At the moment, we can't answer that question. There are 25 different answers," Faull said.
Faull said the short-term emphasis must be on helping North African transit countries face this "new and difficult situation."
This can only mean encouraging such countries -- above all, Libya -- to block as much immigrant transit traffic as possible. Libya already operates a number of detention camps that -- according to some estimates -- house more than 100,000 people.
Faull today said all people held now in camps in North Africa deserve the "highest standards of humanitarian treatment" and the application of "international law in accordance of the highest standards of fundamental rights."
Faull also said all countries concerned should become parties to the relevant international treaties -- in particular, the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. This is something Libya has yet to do.