- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

ROME — Immigration is a time bomb for the European Union and members must work far more closely with each other if the bloc is to control the flood of refugees, the incoming EU justice and home affairs commissioner said.

“People seeking asylum for economic reasons is a growing problem,” said Rocco Buttiglione, who has served as Italy’s European affairs minister for the past three years. “It’s a time bomb.”

European nations must agree on criteria for offering asylum to economic refugees and aid to their home countries if the European Union is to avoid being swamped by the exodus, he said in an interview.

He also backed calls for a common border-control service and supported a proposal to establish immigrant camps or holding centers outside the European Union.

It was German Interior Minister Otto Schily who suggested the union establish immigration “gateways” outside Europe to intercept the migrants and repatriate those who did not meet immigration requirements.

Some human rights groups have opposed the idea. Italy’s Green Party and the Caritas Christian charity group have said such centers “risk turning into concentration camps.”

Mr. Buttiglione, a soft-spoken philosopher and fervent Catholic, said the centers would not infringe on human rights.

“We have to ask transit countries to establish the camps that would take in immigrants who, for example, arrive from sub-Saharan Africa, to offer them humanitarian aid and information about job possibilities in Europe,” he said.

“But they would also investigate, identify and send back those who don’t meet criteria or who would not be able to integrate in our society.”

Italy has been at the center of the immigration debate in recent years as thousands of refugees risk their lives to reach the country’s shores. But most intend to move on to other European countries.

Last weekend, a boat carrying 113 persons, apparently Palestinians, landed on the island of Lampedusa. Earlier this month, nearly 30 African immigrants died of cold and dehydration while making the crossing to Italy on a rickety wooden boat.

The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has managed to cut the number of illegal immigrants entering southern Italy in half with tough legislation known as the Bossi-Fini law.

But Mr. Buttiglione, in his capacity as an Italian Cabinet minister, has argued for a re-examination of the law to take into account the needs of employers. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe.

Other European governments are likely to resist any attempt to crack down on illegal immigration.

Spanish Immigration Secretary Consuelo Rumi said over the weekend she wanted to legalize immigrants now in the country and to link future immigration to the job market.

Other countries are also struggling with immigration policies. The Netherlands has passed a law requiring the expulsion of about 26,000 foreigners who have failed to qualify for asylum, but has yet to come to terms with the logistical challenge.

This month the country softened the blow by offering those applicants a sum of $7,200 per family if they leave voluntarily.

Mr. Buttiglione acknowledged that proposed reforms would require greater coordination and cost sharing within the European Union.

The union should examine more closely the idea of setting up a common border police as well as a unit to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts in the region, he said.

“This could be done through the coordination of information as well as the exchange of people. Some things are already under way.”

The idea is not to create a police state or fortress Europe, he said.

“Obviously someone who has to flee from a dictatorship that wants to kill them is offered asylum. But the reality is there are also natural disasters that mean people don’t have a house to return to.

“Look at sub-Saharan Africa. What can be done about them? We have to talk about it.”

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