EUROPEAN Union officials reacted cautiously yesterday to a proposal to set up immigrant processing camps outside EU borders, possibly in Libya or Ukraine.
EU justice and interior ministers are due to hold a full debate on the issue today, when German Interior Minister Otto Schily will outline his proposal to set up transit centres in North Africa where member states could weed out illegal immigrants.
Mr Schily suggests that EU officials could assess applicants at immigration centres before they set foot on the continent as a way to help stem illegal immigration across the Mediterranean.
German officials, backed by Italy, floated the idea this summer after a German refugee agency's ship was confiscated when it docked in an Italian port with 37 African asylum-seekers on board.
The debate is part of a two-day EU conference on increasing co-operation on common immigration and asylum policies.
EU justice and home affairs commissioner Antonio Vitorino and Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, who hosted the talks, refused to say how much support the plan might have.
"We may have some controversy to some extent," Mr Donner said.
Several African countries, including Libya and Kenya, have been touted as host countries for the suggested camps, while Ukraine has been mentioned as a possible host country to handle refugees fleeing the conflict in Chechnya.
However, human rights activists and the United Nations refugee agency warn that host countries do not themselves live up to international human rights standards and cannot be expected to safely house asylum-seekers.
"Our main concern is the legal protection of these people," said Daphne Bouteillet of Amnesty International.
Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell said that he wanted Mr Schily to fully justify his claim that such camps were necessary.
"These are issues we have to proceed slowly and cautiously on," he said.
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