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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
UK asylum plan under fire
Beverley Hughes
Hughes: Intends to proceed with pilot schemes
The UK plans to forge ahead with a scheme to set up special camps for asylum seekers near the countries they are fleeing - despite the policy being rejected by EU leaders at the summit in Greece.

The proposal was thrown out because some countries argued that the so-called regional "protection zones" sounded more like concentration camps.

However, UK Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes signalled the government's intent to continue to pilot a scheme in a bid to persuade the EU it could work.

We are not saying: 'This is our template - it's written in tablets of stone - this is the way it's got to be'
Beverley Hughes

The British plans to radically change asylum policy were knocked off the agenda at the summit in the secluded Greek resort of Porto Carras after meeting strong opposition from other member states, particularly Sweden.

"Ideas to set up special zones outside the EU are not something we are up for - not with support from the EU, and not with the EU's money," said Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.

But Ms Hughes dismissed the opposition as a "small number of countries who have expressed concern", stressing that asylum is "one of the most urgent policy challenges confronting Europe today".

Orderly approach

She said it was "beholden" on the UK to work with other countries to get new "radical solutions" that would provide better protection for refugees.

"The way forward is to provide a form of words that recognises those concerns, but actually doesn't allow them to be a blocked progress," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Jack Straw and Tony Blair at the EU summit
Draft of the EU constitution is under discussion
She said she expected the summit to produce a text that invites member states to "explore all parameters in order to secure a more orderly approach to better protection closer to regions of origin".

This should "crucially, convince the commission to producing a comprehensive report before June of next year which will include, implicitly, the lessons from pilot initiatives we intend to proceed with".

Challenged that this meant the UK was going to go ahead with its plans anyway, despite opposition, Ms Hughes retorted: "That's not what we are saying. It's recognising that some people will have concerns."

EU constitution

Pressed on whether asylum seekers in this country would be sent back to the protection zone in the region from where they came, Ms Hughes said: "We have to work through all those details.

"The way in which the pilot, initially, and hopefully in the longer term ... will be, on a step by step approach.

"We are not saying: 'This is our template - it's written in tablets of stone - this is the way it's got to be'.

"It may be that we start in a way that doesn't include those returns, but we seek to move in that direction."

The summit provides the first opportunity for EU leaders to hold face-to-face discussion on a draft constitution for the union before they meet in Italy in October to begin the process of agreeing a final version.

Tensions

Leaders from the 15 member countries are being joined at the talks by those of the 10 states which are due to join the EU next May.

They appear to hold widely differing opinions on the constitution, which was completed a week ago after 16 months of negotiations.

The key proposals are for a new full-time president of the EU and an EU foreign minister or foreign policy representative.

Tensions have already emerged between the larger and smaller countries, as well as between those who want more power in Brussels and those who want national governments to hold the reins of power.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Brian Hanrahan reports from Porto Carras
"This is a travelling circus of a summit"



SEE ALSO:
Divided EU leaders tackle reform
20 Jun 03  |  Europe


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