EU mulls easing plight of refugees

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The European Union said it could provide special assistance to member countries facing a refugee crisis and ease refugees' conditions after political upheaval in north Africa.

"In case of a massive inflow of displaced persons and refugees (from Libya, Tunisia or Egypt), the European Commission would be ready to make use of the 2001 directive that provides immediate protection" to these people, said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malstroem on Monday.

The Commission, the EU's executive branch, was considering the possibility of using a temporary protection mechanism, she said.

"This can be activated if there is a mass influx of people who are unable to return.

"But for this to be activated, it needs a qualified majority in the Council," the EU's main decision-making body which represents the 27 member states.

"Today that majority does not exist. We of course are monitoring this very closely and we will bring it back to the council next week," said Malstroem. EU interior ministers are due to meet on April 11.

The protection mechanism, adopted in 2001, has never been activated before. It would allow refugees and displaced people to be granted a residence permit and look for a job, find a new home, claim social and medical benefits and proper schooling. Family members would also benefit.

It would be valid for one year renewable twice for a six-month period.

More than 22,000 migrants, mostly from Tunisia, have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, population 5,000, since president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in a popular revolt in January.

The Italian government has asked Tunis to stop the exodus and to take back those migrants who have already arrived in Italy.

The massive influx of migrants has sparked weeks of protests from Lampedusa residents and fierce condemnation from aid organisations over living conditions on the overcrowded island.

© 2011 AFP

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