Thousands of migrants sail to Italy from North Africa every year
The European Commission has unveiled plans to allow more refugees from conflict zones and poor nations into European countries.
The scheme is aimed at discouraging immigrants - mainly from Africa - from attempting to reach Europe illegally.
Many risk their lives as they try to enter the EU, often on rickety boats and relying on human traffickers.
The UN says 65,596 refugees were resettled worldwide last year, but the EU accepted just 4,378, or 6.7%.
The Commission - the EU's executive arm - says this "contrasts sharply with the numbers taken in by many other countries in the industrialised world, particularly the US, Canada and Australia".
The Commission's new "Joint EU Resettlement Programme" concerns only the resettlement of refugees currently living outside the EU.
It is separate from proposals aimed at easing transfers of refugees from one EU member state to another - known as "burden-sharing".
States free to decide
Several Mediterranean countries, including Italy and Malta, have experienced a large influx of asylum seekers in recent years and want other EU states to help by taking in larger numbers.
The Commission's statement on Wednesday said EU member states would "remain free to decide whether they want to resettle at all, and if so, how many refugees they wish to resettle".
Under the new scheme EU nations would decide together every year which refugee groups should be given priority for resettlement, and receive more money from a joint fund to give them a new home.
By the end of 2008, developing countries were hosting 8.4 million refugees, 80% of the global refugee population, with Pakistan alone hosting 1.8 million, the Commission says.
ORIGIN OF LARGEST REFUGEE GROUPS RESETTLED IN 2008
Burma - 23,200
Iraq - 17,800
Bhutan - 8,100
Somalia - 3,500
Burundi - 3,100
Democratic Republic of Congo - 1,800
One of the biggest humanitarian crises has followed the conflict in Iraq. Two million Iraqis are now leading a precarious life in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The scheme calls on the EU to set annual priorities - for example, focusing on Iraqi or Somali refugees - in coordination with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. An EU-wide Resettlement Expert Group will be set up to do that.
Member states which resettle will receive an extra 4,000 euros (£3,523) per resettled person from the European Refugee Fund.
Currently 10 EU member states operate annual national resettlement programmes, including the UK, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Some other member states, including Italy and Germany, resettle refugees on an ad hoc basis.
Germany, Luxembourg, Italy and Belgium have made specific commitments to resettle Iraqi refugees from Syria and Jordan, following discussions in November 2008, the Commission says.
In such cases, the resettlement procedure is "fundamentally different" from the regular asylum procedure, the Commission says.
"For a resettled refugee, the legal determination that the person in question is a refugee, that he/she deserves protection and that he/she qualifies for resettlement, takes place before the refugee is effectively transferred.
"In contrast, the normal procedure for determining refugee status commences with the request of the asylum seeker, after the arrival of the asylum seeker in an EU member state," the Commission says.
Responding to the Commission's announcement, a leading British Conservative MEP, Timothy Kirkhope, warned that the Commission's "collective approach... could undermine our ability to decide who we grant asylum to and who we allow into our country".
"We need cast-iron guarantees that this will not be the next step towards our asylum policy being decided by Brussels," he said.