Sunday 30, August 2009.
BRUSSELS - The EU this week unveils plans to boost and coordinate Europe's response to the waves of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, seeking to polish its own international image at the same time.
On Wednesday, the European Commission will get the ball rolling with a recommendation for a "joint EU resettlement programme" under which nations would take in more refugees from poor and war-hit third countries.
This scheme, though voluntary, is aimed at cutting the numbers seeking to reach Europe's shores aboard rickety boats or via unscrupulous people traffickers.
The EU's executive arm is also trying to ease the pressure on countries such as Malta, Italy and Spain which are in the frontline of the influx and feel that other member states are not sharing enough of the burden.
Then in October, the commission will publish proposals for harmonizing asylum and family reunion criteria through Europe.
While the European Union is keen to do its best to help refugee-laden countries plus the immigrants themselves, there is also a feeling that at the moment the bloc has an image problem.
"The current relatively low level of involvement of the EU in the resettlement of refugees impacts negatively on the ambition of the EU to play a prominent role in global humanitarian affairs and hence on the influence of the EU in international fora," the commission said in the resettlement proposals.
According to UNHCR figures, last year EU nations resettled 6.7 per cent of the 65,596 refugees who found new homes worldwide.
"Some countries can say 'you are not doing sufficiently as a bloc' and the figures certainly suggest that perhaps more can be done," admitted commission spokesman Dennis Abbott.
A senior Vatican official recently deplored indifference to migrants after 73 Eritreans were reported to have died from hunger and thirst trying to reach Europe from North Africa.
Under the plans a new body, the European Asylum Support Office, will annually identify priority groups which need refuge, for example Iraqi refugees in Syria or Jordan, Somali refugees in Kenya or Sudanese refugees from Chad.
Then EU nations agreeing to take such asylum-seekers would receive help from an enlarged European Refugee Fund.
"Cooperation on practical and logistical aspects will lead to more financial and quality effectiveness" - including medical and security screening, the commission asserts.
Rome and Valletta decry the lack of European solidarity on the issue.
"Italy is the outpost but immigration is a European problem," Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano has stressed.
To help, the commission is also seeking support this month for a burden-sharing pilot project focused on Malta.
France recently accepted almost 100 asylum seekers from Malta, a move seen as a blueprint for the wider efforts.
The commission is also keen to broadcast that almost all the costs for those efforts were paid for with community funds. It hopes to win offers for up to 2,000 more places from other EU nations.
"If we can get the system up and running that will really ease some of the pressure" on front-line nations, said Tobias Billstrom, immigration minister of Sweden, which holds the EU's rotating presidency.
However he told AFP that attention must also be given to the root of the problem, in the countries of departure, to ensure that sought-after streamlined operations in Europe don't simply make it a more attractive destination.
"We always need to focus on not creating a pull factor," he stressed.
"We must not give the impression that such burden-sharing signifies a more lax attitude from the reception countries," echoed his French counterpart Eric Besson.
The plan to harmonize asylum criteria is part of this effort so that Europe is receiving "those who really need international protection," assures EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot.