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Refugee quotas divide EU

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Refugee quotas divide EU

Refugees in Mediterranean

(BRUSSELS) - EU plans for binding refugee quotas across the 28-nation bloc could be sunk because Britain, Ireland and Denmark do not have to accept them, European sources said Tuesday.

The European Commission, the EU executive, is due to propose quotas as part of a new migration policy on Wednesday after the worst migrant shipwreck left 750 people dead in the Mediterranean last month.

As the death toll mounts off its southern shores, the European Union is trying to put in place a strategy to deal with both the growing number of arriving refugees and to halt the inflow at source in conflict-torn North Africa and the Middle East.

The final plan is supposed to be put before EU leaders at their June 25-26 summit but immigration is such a sensitive political issue for many member states that agreement could prove elusive, especially when it comes to sharing the burden.

Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said on Tuesday that Britain and Ireland have "opt-in rights" on certain policy areas under EU treaties, meaning in this case that they had the right to decide whether or not to participate in a quota system.

"Denmark has an opt-out right whereby they do not participate at all" on this issue, Bertaud added.

In London, a Home Office spokesperson said that, given the choice, Britain "will not participate in any legislation imposing a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation."

Instead, the spokesperson said, Britain will focus on "stopping the callous criminals who lie behind this vile trade in human beings" by cooperating more with law enforcement agencies and working within the countries of origin and transit as well as returning illegal migrants.

The exemptions granted to the three countries are making it difficult for the commission to impose binding quotas on the 25 remaining EU member states, European sources told AFP.

The issue is so divisive that after further talks Tuesday, officials still had not fashioned an agreement before the 28 EU Commissioners were due to meet Wednesday to formally sign off on the new migration policy, the sources said.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said he wants the quotas to be binding, commission sources told AFP, but Britain, among others, has insisted it will only accept quotas on a voluntary basis.

- 'Others offer nothing' -

"Some member states have already made a major contribution to global resettlement efforts," said a draft copy of the proposals seen by AFP.

"But others offer nothing -- and in many cases they are not making an alternative contribution in terms of receiving and accepting asylum requests or helping to fund the efforts of others," the draft added.

Hungary is one member state that has faced a huge influx of refugees recently, mainly from Kosovo, but also Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The European idea that somebody allows refugees into their own country and then distributes them to other member states is mad and unfair," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Friday.

Orban like many of his European partners is facing an opposition upsurge of anti-immigrant populism.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the EU to admit annually a total of 20,000 Syrians who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.

But one European source said no figure has so far been offered to the Commissioners.

Until now, EU states have admitted refugees on a voluntary basis under the principle that their asylum requests are processed in the country where they land, not the country they are trying to get to.

Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta have borne the brunt of the recent upsurge in migrants crossing the Mediterranean and have called on their EU peers to take up more of the burden.

The EU statistics agency Eurostat said Tuesday that EU member states granted protection to more than 185,000 asylum seekers last year, an increase of nearly 50 percent over 2013. The figure includes those given refugee status.

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