Illegal immigrants who land in Malta will be able to seek asylum in other EU countries if a European Commission proposal is accepted by member states. The move could significantly alleviate the island's burden.

The Commission is proposing to suspend the EU's contentious asylum seekers' rule - the Dublin II Regulation, which states that asylum applications can only be dealt with by the member state where immigrants first land - for countries facing severe immigration pressures.

The proposal, to be made by the end of the year, must be approved by all EU states before it can be implemented.

This rule is considered to be a major contributor to Malta's troubles in the immigration area, since thousands of illegal immigrants must remain in detention while local officials go through the laborious process of dealing with their applications.

The develpment was revealed by EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot following a series of questions from MEP Simon Busuttil who, along with the government, has been pressuring the Commission on this issue.

Mr Barrot told Dr Busuttil: "In view of ensuring a higher degree of solidarity among member states, the Commission indeed intends to propose a community mechanism which would allow, in well defined and exceptional circumstances, for the possibility of temporarily suspending the application of the Dublin rules for transfers of asylum-seekers to a member state whose reception system cannot adequately deal with the transferred persons."

Mr Barrot added that this mechanism aimed to avoid the burden imposed by the Dublin system on states that have limited reception and absorption capacities and who find themselves under particular migratory pressures because of their geographical position.

"The details of such a mechanism are currently being considered by the Commission and will be included in the proposal for revising the Dublin Regulation, which is expected to be presented before the end of 2008."

The government had already presented proposals to the Commission. However, several member states supported by the Commission itself had resisted the idea - preferring to help Malta through other means, particularly financial handouts and Frontex surveillance missions. The latest declaration by Mr Barrot indicates a change of heart.

Dr Busuttil told The Sunday Times: "EU law will finally be reviewed to take better account of over-burdened member states, like Malta.

"This step has long been overdue. If this proposal is adopted, it will greatly relieve Malta's burden in dealing with the reception of immigrants as they will be able to move to other EU countries."

Asylum applications have risen sharply in recent years as almost all the illegal immigrants arriving on Malta's shores file a claim.

According to UNHCR figures published last month, the number of asylum applicants in Malta trebled during the first six months of this year compared with 2007. Between January and June, there were 1,101 asylum claims, a 177 per cent increase on the 397 received during the first six months of last year.

According to a UNHCR study, the Dublin II Regulation needs substantial revision to ensure the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are respected.

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