"Germany has now relaunched the idea," Petrucci said. "To my knowledge, the [European] Commission has not yet worked on it. The main interlocutor would be the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, because what's under discussion here is the protection of [refugees] in their areas of origin. But to my knowledge, the commission has not dealt with the idea after Thessaloniki."
German media reported this week that Interior Minister Otto Schily told fellow EU ministers that "safe zones" in North Africa could help the EU turn back refugee boats making their way north across the Mediterranean.
Pressure is growing on the European Union to sort out its tangled immigration and asylum policy. The bloc's member states allow for very little legal immigration, while illegal arrivals number in the hundreds of thousands every year. The EU's asylum policies are restrictive and relatively uncoordinated.
To relieve pressure on the EU, Britain last year suggested the bloc set up external "safe zones" for would-be immigrants. The plan came under intense criticism from the UN's refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Officials at the UNHCR said it would undermine refugees' rights to receive asylum. The idea was dropped at the EU's Thessaloniki summit in June 2003.
EU Commission spokesman Petrucci suggested that last year's analysis still holds -- that there is no legal basis for such zones outside the EU. He said even limited "pilot" projects do not appear to be feasible. However, he added that if Germany makes a formal request, the commission will study the situation again. This could be part of the EU's preparations for a broader five-year plan for joint asylum and immigration measures, which is expected to be agreed in October.
Diederik Kramer is the spokesman for the UNHCR's office in Brussels. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the UNHCR has not changed its initial analysis -- that "safe zones" outside the EU are likely to undermine refugees' rights to asylum.
"We think that is a dangerous suggestion, because what happens actually is that when someone applies for asylum in the EU, then this person may be sent away, and they say, 'No, you can't get asylum here, you have to go to that other region.' And that is tantamount to what we call refoulement [suppressing], which means that people are refused asylum, sent away to a place where they do not get the protection they need," Kramer said. "And under the convention of 1951 -- the [Geneva] Refugee Convention -- countries are [obliged] to offer asylum to those who need it."
The safe zones would have two functions. First, they would act as "catchment" centers for migrants from the surrounding region, saving them what U.K. officials last year described as a difficult and dangerous journey to the EU. Secondly, the zones could also be used to house asylum seekers sent back from the EU itself while their applications are being considered.
Kramer said one of the UNHCR's objections is that asylum seekers would not be guaranteed the same standards in the safe zones. But, he said, there is also a more fundamental matter of principle involved. "The European countries, just as other countries who have signed the Geneva Convention, are bound by international law to offer asylum. Even countries who have not signed the convention are still bound by its principles through the system of international law," Kramer said. "So, it would be a very bad example if European countries would start saying, 'Well, we won't apply the convention in our part of the world. Let's have that done in another part of the world' -- because the other parts of the world are generally poorer parts of the world, which already have the very largest number of refugees in the world. After all, it's only a very small part of the world's refugees that reaches the European Union."
Kramer said the UNHCR also rejects the argument that safe zones would help refugees and people displaced as a result of conflicts. Instead, he said, the EU should support and strengthen protection given to refugees by countries in the region. The EU should help host countries shore up their institutions and systems. He said this would automatically remove the need for refugees to travel any farther.
Kramer also noted that, as a rule, the vast majority of refugees remain in the immediate vicinity of the conflict area. Comparatively few undertake the journey to Europe.
The European Commission has in the past suggested that allowing legal immigration could both help the member states' economies and relieve pressure on their asylum systems.
One EU official, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the increasing involvement of human rights organizations in helping migrants to reach bloc could force the member states to change direction.
"Cap Anamur," a German-registered ship, delivered 37 African refugees to Italy in June. It is the latest example of what is seen as a growing trend. The official said this could swamp EU asylum systems with claims from "economic migrants," making it harder for genuine refugees to make their cases.