Over the next four months, the current holder of the EU Presidency, Sweden, which is proud of its tradition as a country of asylum, aims to succeed where its many predecessors have failed, and to establish a credible European policy to cope with the growing numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to land on the shores of Southern Europe. The human tragedy occasioned by the recent drowning of several dozen Eritrean asylum seekers off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa highlights the harsh political reality of the issue of immigration and openness to asylum seekers, which has been sidelined by the financial crisis, the rise in unemployment and a rightward drift in European public opinion.

In view of the urgency of the situation — last year, some 70,000 illegal immigrants crossed the Mediterranean in the hope of forcing their way into the EU — Stockholm and the French Commissioner for Justice, Jacques Barrot, have nonetheless decided to table proposals in September, which they hope will lead to progress in two key areas of immigration policy. The first proposal will be for a pilot 'relocation' project — which aims to encourage other member states to accept a share of the boat people who arrive on the shores of southern Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. For the moment, only France has promised to participate. Secondly, the Swedish Presidency has highlighted the need for a "more effective" asylum policy, which goes beyond the minimum standards for the protection of refugees imposed by European law. Stockholm wants these to be included in harmonized legislation in individual member countries, which would be a logical reflection of freedom of movement within Europe as defined by the Schengen Agreement.

Northern Europe vs. Southern Europe

The holding of asylum seekers in increasingly squalid camps in Southern Europe camps and the refusal of northern European countries to accept an obligation "to share the burden" of the inflow of refugees gives a poor image of Europe, which is in marked contrast to its pious condemnation of Guantanamo Bay detention camp. On Monday, the UN High Commission for Refugees demanded the immediate closure of a chronically overcrowded centre on the Greek island of Lesvos. Overcrowding has also reached critical levels in a second centre in Pagani, which only has one toilet for every hundred detainees, and no running water. Conditions in other reception centres in Italy, Cyprus and Malta are regularly condemned by NGOs. In the words of one European official, "We can't go on treating people like this!"

EU countries on the Mediterranean, which are in the front line in the struggle to cope with the influx of boat people from Africa and the Middle East have appealed in vain for support from the rest of Europe. "We have heard plenty of fine speeches, but Europe still has not told us how to cope with waves of immigrants arriving on our shores," points out Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who preceded Jacques Barrot as Commissioner for Justice. The international community is increasingly concerned by the situation in Italy — the country of arrival for close to half of illegal immigrants — where frustrated politicians, have responded to the problem by adopting a policy of summarily sending asylum seekers back to the other side of the Mediterranean.

There is no denying that European legislation is in part responsible for the inflow of illegal immigrants and the unfortunate division between Northern and Southern Europe. Applicants for refugee status have to be physically present in the EU, and given that requests for visas are usually refused, would-be migrants are force to sneak across European borders. This is the main reason for the large numbers of boats landing on the southern coast of the EU. Once they have arrived, immigrants' right of asylum is only recognized by the country where they are initially granted protection. So even when they succeed in obtaining papers, most immigrants remain stuck in the South. Like the officials in Brussels who are trying to simplify the law, they are caught in inextricable tangle of legislation.