European Commission chief promises a new plan to tackle illegal immigration but Italy says repatriation is more humane

ROME (Combined reports) – European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told an Italian newspaper Tuesday he will unveil new plans to combat illegal immigration to Europe within weeks. «By June 10, the EC Vice President Jacques Barrot and myself will present new proposals with three aims: to prevent sea tragedies, protect the principle of free movement and defend people’s right to asylum,» he said in an interview with Corriere della Sera. Europe must «provide a strong answer» to illegal immigration and consider creating an EU asylum bureau to examine individual cases, he added, while also underlining people’s universal right to claim asylum. «It is unacceptable that traffickers risk the lives of tens of thousands of people. There have been more deaths in areas around the Canary Islands (off the west coast of Africa) than during Lebanon’s civil war (between 1975-1990, in which more than 150,000 died). «That doesn’t need to be the case,» he said. More than 67,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe in 2008 – half of them arrived in Italy and Malta – according to figures released January by the United Nations refugee agency. The number of clandestine immigrants reaching Italy grew by 75 percent last year over 2007, and expanded by 65 percent over the same period in Greece, ministries in both countries have said. Italy, which came under fire for sending would-be immigrants crossing by boat back to Libya earlier this month, is trying to pass a controversial law to stop illegal immigration through measures including fines of thousands of euros. «We must do everything in our power to stop boat crossings, to guarantee coastal checks and help countries like Libya put in place agreements it can keep,» Barroso said. Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday that his country’s holding centers for immigrants are like «concentration camps,» adding it was more humane to send migrant boats back to Libya than let them enter Italy. «I think it is much easier… to examine individual situations in the country of origin, otherwise they come here and go to a camp which, I should not be saying this, is very similar to a concentration camp,» Berlusconi told reporters. Since coming to power last year, Berlusconi’s government has cracked down on illegal immigration, controversially making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant. It plans to double the number of holding camps for migrants to 20 from 10 and has renamed them «Identification and Expulsion Centers.» Last week, the lower house of parliament passed a bill which trebles the amount of time immigrants can be held in such centers to six months. Aid groups have long denounced overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and in some cases police abuse at the holding centers, particularly the one on the southern island of Lampedusa, where most of the immigrants from Africa wash ashore. (AFP, Reuters)

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