EU boosts immigration crackdown, but rebuffs British plan

20.Jun.03,  first published by read the original article here.

PORTO CARRAS, Greece - EU leaders agreed Friday to boost cooperation to crack down on illegal immigration, although they failed to back a controversial British plan on asylum seekers, according to draft conclusions from their summit here.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the broader accord, saying it would help weed out bogus asylum claims.

The accord "give us a greater opportunity to take the action we need, not just in our own countries but also in the European Union, to try and make sure that we weed out those asylum claims that are not genuine claims," he said.

The agreement reached would also allow EU states to "return people to their countries of origin, should their claims fail, in an easier manner."

The EU leaders gathered in the secluded Greek resort of Porto Carras agreed notably to "reinforce existing cooperation" in the area of returning illegal immigrants to their countries of origin.

They also reiterated their aim of setting up a Europe-wide coordinated asylum system to process claims rapidly and efficiently, according to a draft final declaration.

But they failed to give support to a controversial British plan to set up "protection zones" in conflict areas to stem the flow of asylum seekers into Europe.

The draft conclusions invited the EU Commission to look at ways to help boost security in the world's hot spots.

It noted that some countries would work with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to better protect refugees in their region of origin, but gave no support for that action.

London argues that the current system for handling refugee claimants is too easily abused and too expensive.

It wants the protection zones to be set up to ensure a "firm and fair procedure" that encourages genuine asylum seekers to come forward.

British officials had expressed confidence that their plan would be well received by leaders here, but after talks with other EU members they were forced to back down.

"Now it's a question for Britain to do it bilaterally but it's not the case that they can do it with assistance, financing or support by the EU as such," said Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh.

Britain is keen to set up at least a pilot scheme for the plans, which have been criticized by human rights campaigners as "unlawful and unworkable."

In the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Afghanistan under the Taliban, the plan would have meant sending claimants to centres in Turkey, Iran or Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Morocco or northern Somalia could act as centres for African asylum-seekers under the British plan, while eastern Europeans seeking refuge could head to non-EU countries such as Romania or Croatia.

Many EU members had voiced caution about the plans, with opponents including Germany warning that the "transit centres" being proposed could be seen as concentration camps.

The EU has been trying for four years to flesh out a joint asylum and immigration policy but has so far failed to inject enough funds to make any common initiatives credible.

Figures published last month by the UN refugee agency said asylum applications in Europe fell to their lowest level in three years in the first quarter of 2003.