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Last Updated: Friday, 28 March, 2003, 17:21 GMT
EU 'support' for asylum plan
Asylum seekers in France
The UK received more claims last year than any other EU nation

A British plan to deport asylum seekers to special centres outside Europe has received "substantial support" from EU ministers, Home Secretary David Blunkett said.

The scheme could mean the setting up of safe havens where refugees would stay until they could safely return to their homes.

Ministers say the system would give asylum seekers a fairer deal, but some refugee groups had expressed "grave concerns" about the plans.

Tony Blair presented the draft proposals to his counterparts at last week's EU summit in Brussels and on Friday Mr Blunkett gave more details to his European counterparts during talks in Greece on Friday.

Afterwards he said: "I am very pleased at the substantial support around the table from EU partners and the European Commission for our proposals on zones of protection.

"We had a serious discussion of the challenges we all face in finding a 21st century solution to asylum issues and illegal immigration.

"Colleagues agreed that the EU should follow up urgently the ideas in the UK's paper." With UK asylum claims topping 100,000 last year, Mr Blair has promised to halve the number of applications by September.

The United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) for Refugees has suggested that the Iraq war could cause more than half a million refugees.

Protection zones

Under the plans, "regional protection zones" would be established near conflict areas.

Those havens would build on UNHCR efforts to give protection for people fleeing conflict and then help them resettle in their home regions "at the appropriate time", said Mr Blunkett.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Blunkett will need to persuade EU partners
"Transit zones" would also be set up with the UNHCR under the proposals to process asylum claims without people having to travel to EU countries.

But TGWU boss Bill Morris branded the idea ill thought through and accused EU leaders of being prepared to "subcontract" out their moral and legal responsibilities to poorer countries.

"What I am arguing against is the idea that we can sub-contract our moral and legal responsibility to countries whose economy and social structure are 20 times worse than anything we've experienced," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

A similar policy of putting asylum seekers in reception centres in Hong Kong had led to riots after "failing miserably".

"It is a flawed policy. It hasn't been thought through and I hope the UNHCR doesn't touch it with a bargepole."

But Mr Blunkett accused his "old friend" Mr Morris of trying to find a cause to fight for and insisted if the proposal was implemented asylum seekers would be treated decently.

'Firm commitment'

He also insisted that a commitment by Tony Blair to halve the number of asylum seekers coming into the UK by September was realistic.

"I think it will be met," he told Today.

"It is a firm commitment. We have a situation where last October we had nearly 9,000 a month coming in.

"If we get it down to an average of just under 4,500 a month by September, then we will have met that firm commitment."

Ministers argue most refugees currently have no chance of reaching British shores to claim asylum under the current system.

The home secretary was confident that "workable options" could be produced together with the UNHCR and the European Commission.

These proposals will leave the poorest countries of the world carrying an ever-growing proportion of the world's refugees
Julia Purcell
Refugee Council

Ministers acknowledge it could take time to get the system in place as they would need to agree sites for the new centres.

'Highest standards'

Julia Purcell, head of the Refugee Council, said she was "extremely concerned" about the idea.

"These proposals amount to a shifting, rather than sharing, of responsibilities," said Ms Purcell.

The plans would leave the poorest countries of the world carrying an ever-growing proportion of the world's refugees, she argued.

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