The European Union unveiled proposals on Wednesday aimed at pushing its member states to resettle more refugees within its borders as a row flared between Brussels and the Italian government over its treatment of boat people.
The new proposals would enable Brussels to offer financial help to countries that resettle recognised refugees outside their borders, for example Iraqis in Jordan or Somalis in Kenya.
The aim of the proposal is to burnish the EU’s international image and to help stem the tide of illegal immigration by providing legal alternatives for at least some of those hoping to relocate to the EU.
The scheme would be voluntary for member states, as is the case in most policy areas relating to home affairs. Brussels is hoping a mix of incentive payments and peer pressure – EU members relocated fewer than 5,000 refugees last year, compared with about 60,000 in the US – will encourage take-up, but it has set no targets.
The move is a prelude to more ambitious plans by the EU to make its member states adopt common standards on asylum policy.
Ultimately, the Commission hopes it can persuade member states to use standardised guidelines when processing refugees, thus ending discrepancies in which some members reject virtually all asylum demands.
Meanwhile, it is trying to induce member states that receive few asylum applications voluntarily to take in up to 2,000 of those that have landed in Malta and Italy, which have received the bulk of asylum applications because of their Mediterranean coastlines.
The unveiling of the new proposal was largely overshadowed by the spat with the Italian authorities, however. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, on Wednesday reiterated calls made on Tuesday by Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, that EU officials should be barred from making public statements lest they interfere in domestic politics.
The Italian government’s ire followed a Commission spokesman’s confirmation this week that Brussels had sent Italy and Malta a letter questioning an incident in which a boat full of immigrants was turned back without giving its passengers the chance to request asylum, apparently contravening international law.
An earlier, similar letter sought to verify reports that 73 Eritreans had died last month while attempting to reach European shores from Libya.
The Commission’s chief spokesman said on Wednesday that its questions in no way implied any wrongdoing by Italy. “There is no need to take this polemic much further,” he said, adding that individual commissioners and their spokesmen would continue to make public comments to reflect the body’s “collegiate” composition.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Italy has since May pushed back at least 900 people trying to reach it by sea, most of them being returned to Libya. The refugee agency expressed serious concern over the legality of such moves.