Go-ahead to experiment with Britain's refugee zones plan

21.Jun.03,  first published by The Guardian: read the original article here.

Tony Blair yesterday salvaged some freedom of manoeuvre to press ahead with his controversial plans for "zones of protection" in refugee hotspots when the EU summit withheld its endorsement - but gave Britain and its allies the green light to develop pilot schemes.

After the prime minister's scheme was rebuffed by fellow leaders of Thursday night - amid widespread distaste for anything that smacks of "zones" or "concentration camps" - European Commission officials confirmed that the so-called "British proposal" will go ahead on an experimental basis.

The Dutch, Danes and Austrians are working with Britain to provide financial support to keep refugees in their original host countries, helping them to return home, to resettle to other countries, or start new lives locally.

"The idea is to bring safe havens closer to the people and their places of origin," a commission spokesman told reporters at the summit after the 15 heads of government decided to set up their own 12- month study and to report on "practical proposals" to tackle the problem.

"We can do what we want, we can have our input into the commission report and go away and do pilots," said one British official. The first pilot projects are likely to be in East Africa, where Somalis flee from the war-ravaged Horn of Africa.

Twelve refugee and human rights bodies this week protested to Mr Blair about the scheme. But Whitehall believes it recognises that the vast majority of the 12 million refugees in the world remain in regions close to the country of origin, often supported by the United Nations high commisioner for refugees.

Britain has dropped its more controversial idea of setting up refugee transit processing centres on trafficking routes into Europe, because of objections from Germany and Sweden, whose premier, Goran Persson, came under domestic pressure to block EU funding for pilots.