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Italy Sends Migrants Back to Africa As Obtaining Asylum May Get Harder

By Ian Fisher and Richard Bernstein

The New York Times -- ROME

Hundreds of migrants from Africa in rickety boats have landed in the last few days on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island, and the Italian government is responding quickly and contentiously, sending most of them back to Libya almost immediately, by airplane.

The crossing to Italy is a treacherous one for the thousands of poor and desperate migrants who chance no less than 70 miles of open sea on the Mediterranean each year. Last weekend, at least 17 people drowned off the coast of Tunisia trying to reach Italy, the official Tunisian news agency reported on Monday. Another 47 people, in a boatload of 70 Moroccans and five Tunisians, were reported missing.

These events underscore a serious problem that European governments have tried and, so far, failed to solve. It is what to do about the flow of asylum seekers coming to Europe, mostly from Asia and Africa, many hundreds of whom have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean after being put into unseaworthy boats by human traffickers.

In recent weeks, European leaders have been sparring over a plan proposed by Germany’s interior minister, Otto Schily, to stem the flow of potential immigrants to the European Union by building holding centers in North Africa and only allowing those whose asylum applications are approved there to proceed to Europe.

“It’s an offer to help those who are in danger,” Schily said of his proposal, arguing that his plan was aimed, among other things, at helping to avoid the hazards of a sea voyage.

Schily’s idea, discussed last week at a meeting of European interior ministers in the Netherlands, has gotten a mixed reception. Italy, which has received the largest number of African refugees, announced its support several weeks ago. Representatives of Spain and Portugal said after the meeting last week that the plan should be studied.

But officials from France, Belgium and Sweden have spoken out against the idea, objecting that the camps would be set up in countries that do not have good records in protecting refugees’ rights. Human rights groups and the United Nations have warned that it could seal Europe off from legitimate asylum seekers.

“We are not taking part in this plan,” the French interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, said after the meeting in the Netherlands, The Associated Press reported.

In making his proposal for reception centers in Africa, Schily was reviving an idea first raised last year by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, but then quickly dropped when most European countries opposed it.