At last year's Thessaloniki summit, European Union leaders dismissed similar plans pushed by Britain as too controversial. However, the same idea has resurfaced in a new guise. In June, German Interior Minister Otto Schily floated the possibility of EU-managed camps in North African countries as a means of stemming the increasing flow of refugees across the Mediterranean.
In August, the new European Commissioner-designate for justice and home affairs issues, Italy's Rocco Buttiglione, appeared to voice support for the idea.
And yesterday, Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner said that what he called a "sustainable solution" must be found to provide protection to refugees closer to their countries of origin.
Work toward that end is one of the priorities of the EU's current Dutch presidency. The Dutch presidency is also in charge of setting the bloc's immigration and asylum policy priorities from 2005 to 2009.
Having come under fire from several members of the European Parliament, Donner appeared sympathetic to the positions of Schily and Buttiglione, but said the issue is not yet topical: "A number of questions have been put [to me] about ideas recently expressed by the German [Minister of the Interior Otto] Schily and the incoming Italian Commissioner [for Justice and Home Affairs Rocco Buttiglione] about whether, in the region, arrangements could be put in place to moderate the continuous flow of immigrants to Europe. The suggestion has been -- if I've understood the idea correctly -- that a solution must be found to the drama that regularly unfolds on the Mediterranean Sea. That is the intention."
But Donner said it is too early to consider such proposals: "As the [current chair of the EU's Council of Justice and Home Affairs ministers], I can say that no plan has yet been presented to the council, and I have not seen concrete suggestions."
Italy, especially, is said to be seeking bilateral contacts with countries such as Libya and Tunisia. Italy, together with Spain and other southern EU countries, bears the brunt of the flood of refugees continually attempting to cross the Mediterranean. According to some estimates, more than 5,000 people have died in the attempt over the past decade.
Donner stressed that the EU is discussing the issue of refugee protection closer to the points of origin with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers. The UNCHR has repeatedly criticized the idea of holding centers as potentially violating the Geneva Convention on refugees, which is intended to guarantee refugees a fair chance at obtaining asylum.
UNHCR representatives say they favor supporting countries that have to cope with the initial waves of displaced people fleeing war or natural catastrophes.
Donner said that an "honest answer" must be found to the problem, but added that the current holder of the EU presidency, the Netherlands, cannot force the issue.
Domestically, Donner, who is a Christian Democrat, is known to take a tough line on immigration and asylum policy.
He told deputies that the EU is coming to realize that asylum and immigration policies are an integral part of the bloc's foreign policy. He said both need to be coordinated with development cooperation, trade policy, and security in general.
Donner said it is "obvious" that immigration and asylum policies cannot stop at the borders of the EU.
The EU has in recent years begun inserting clauses in cooperation treaties with non-EU countries, stipulating the need to assist the bloc in its attempts to fight illegal immigration or face countermeasures.
Yesterday, Donner said a common EU approach to common borders is another key aspect in the management of "migratory flows." He said agreement on a joint EU border management agency is currently blocked by the recurrent disagreement between Britain and Spain over the status of Gibraltar.
Another priority for the EU is said to be an effective return policy for failed asylum seekers. Again, Donner said, a joint approach is needed to establish common standards. Again, the cooperation of countries of transit or of origin of failed asylum seekers is essential.
Finally, Donner said, EU member states need to strengthen joint measures for those turned back. He said the asylum process -- and expulsions of failed asylum claimants -- must be quick, to prevent the abuse of the asylum process.
"That's the only way that we'll get enough support in Europe as a whole," Donner said.
He said another Dutch priority is the integration of foreigners allowed to stay. Again, a common EU vision is needed. Donner said the Netherlands will shortly come out with a set of what he called "basic principles."
A UNHCR report on asylum figures for industrial countries, released in Brussels yesterday, says the number of claimants in 25 European countries dropped by 18 percent in the first six months of 2004, compared to the same period last year. However, six new EU member states saw an increase of 31 percent over the same period. Cyprus, Slovakia, and Poland topped that list.
Asylum figures for the United States remained steady. The report says Russians -- presumed to be mostly Chechens -- remain the leading group of asylum seekers in Europe.