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The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"Italian police have to play a cat and mouse game"
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Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 01:05 GMT
Crackdown on human traffickers
Immigrants leaving a lorry at Dover
Some pay smugglers up to 2,700 to make the trip
Britain and Italy have announced a joint initiative to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.

UK premier Tony Blair and the Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato have agreed to send teams of immigration staff and police officers to the Balkans.

The catalogue of death in recent times speaks for itself

Tony Blair
The region is the starting point of one of the main transit routes for illegal immigration to Western Europe and gangs operating along it are believed responsible for smuggling up to 50,000 people a year.

The United Nations says the route could be responsible for 10% of Europe's illegal immigrants, some paying up to 2,700 to make the trip.

In an article written with Mr Amato for The Observer newspaper, Mr Blair pledged to deploy more police and immigration officers in Bosnia as a joint initiative to step up border checks.

He also offered extra funds for a "voluntary repatriation" scheme encouraging people who had made the journey just to seek a better life to return home.


Mr Blair said the discovery of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants found dead in a container at Dover last year showed why the trade had to end.

"Every day we hear the horrors illegal immigrants endure at the hands of the people traffickers.

"We will honour our obligations to provide protection to those fleeing persecution. But we must not allow such tragic loss of life."

Illegal immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia make their way to countries like Serbia where immigration controls are lax.

Smugglers then help them make their way to the Italian coast - which is difficult to police - and on through the rest of Europe in lorries or trains.

Sentences of up to 14 years for criminals profiting from the world's fastest growing illegal trade could be introduced as part of the crackdown.

In Britain they currently face a 10-year sentence, less in many other EU countries.


Officials are reported to favour a Europe-wide sentence for traffickers.

If other countries support the proposals the new measures could be in place in the Balkans and across Europe within six months.

The UK Conservative Party doubts the proposals will have an impact on the problem.

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said it was not Britain's place to help monitor Italy's frontiers.

"The most useful step would be to ensure the return of asylum seekers to the last safe country through which they passed," she said.

Mr Blair's comments follow reports that asylum seekers in the UK are going "days or weeks" without food because of lengthy delays in issuing vouchers.

Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council said there was a "crisis" in the system which was affecting families across the UK.

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See also:

03 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Alarm over 'starving' asylum seekers
27 Jun 00 | Europe
Illegal immigrants: UK overview
19 Jun 00 | Europe
Trafficking: A human tragedy
24 Jan 01 | Americas
EU to fight Balkan traffickers
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