A plan by the home secretary, David Blunkett, to establish processing camps outside of Europe to deal with asylum seekers has been revived after being taken up by the German and Italian governments.
Tunisia has been named by the German government as a possible site for the European Union camps, which will allow asylum seekers heading for Britain and the rest of Europe to apply for refugee status without having to pay people traffickers to smuggle them to London.
Italy is funding camps in Tunisia to control the migrant flow from central Africa.
The idea was first proposed by Mr Blunkett a year ago but met opposition from Otto Schilly, the German interior minister, who said it would increase rather than reduce the numbers trying to get into Europe. It was put on ice after Tony Blair failed to win support for it at the EU summit in Greece in June 2003.
But appalled at the rising death toll amongst migrants who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, Mr Schilly has changed his mind.
He has adopted the British plan, with the details to be thrashed out at a meeting of the G5 nations of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain in Florence next month.
“The problems of Africa should be solved with the help of Europe in Africa, they cannot be solved in Europe,” he told last month’s meeting of European justice and home affairs ministers.
The plan has also been backed by the EU’s incoming “justice, freedom and security” commissioner, Rocco Buttiglione, from Italy.
He has been Silvio Berlusconi’s minister for Europe for three years, and said recently the EU was in danger of being “swamped” by an “immigration time bomb”.
Earlier this month Mr Buttiglione said: “We have to ask transit countries to establish the camps that would take in immigrants who, for example, arrive from sub-Saharan Africa, to offer them humanitarian aid and information about job possibilities in Europe.
“But they would also investigate, identify and send back those who don’t meet the criteria or who would not be able to integrate into our society.”
The move comes at a time when the EU is drawing up an asylum policy that could see a temporary resettlement scheme put in place for those in need of international protection. It would also include set targets for the numbers each country would take.
British MEP Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberals in the European parliament, said they would oppose the project as he believed it ran counter to the European convention on human rights. “If Mr Buttiglione chooses the road of confrontation he can expect a rocky ride,” he said.
A Home Office source said it welcomed the project being “taken out of the icebox” but wanted to see the detail of what is to be proposed at the Florence meeting.
The original British plan insisted that the opening up of a new legal route to refugee status in Britain, through a camp based outside the EU’s borders, would not replace the right to claim asylum for those who arrived in Britain.