As over 200 illegal immigrants landed in Malta yesterday, the European Commission unveiled plans to launch a new asylum agency that will help member states, such as Malta, cope better with the influx of migrants and asylum seekers.

The proposal is being considered by member states as the first concrete step by the EU Executive towards the implementation of the European Asylum Pact, agreed upon last year.

The agency, to be known as the European Asylum Support Office, will be set up next year and will be responsible to coordinate and step up cooperation on asylum between member states and help harmonise different national practices.

Above all, the agency will be responsible to help member states facing sudden influxes of illegal immigrants and potential refugees.

According to the plans, when a member state makes a request, the agency will send over specialised teams within five days to help in identification, translation, interpretation, accommodation and repatriation issues.

Member states will also be helped in their efforts to implement a more consistent and fairer asylum policy, including identifying good practices, organising training at European level and improving access to accurate information on country of origin.

The agency will provide scientific and technical assistance for the development of an asylum policy and legislation.

Launching the initiative in Brussels, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot mentioned Malta as one of the countries that can benefit from such an office.

He said the agency was eagerly awaited by Mediterranean countries such as Malta, Cyprus and Greece that were overwhelmed by asylum seekers.

"The asylum authorities of member states crucially need material support for their day-to-day operational requirements. Support teams deployed by the office will also help to find solutions to emergency situations, such as a mass influx of asylum seekers," he said.

Although the office will be established as an independent European body funded by the EU, the Commission and member states will be represented on the management board, which will be the office's governing body.

The office will also work closely with the authorities responsible for asylum in member states and with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The proposal, including the choice of a seat for the new agency, will be passed on to the EU Council for approval.

The issue of illegal immigration was raised by Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat in Parliament yesterday who asked that the House suspend its business and hold an emergency debate.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said there was no urgency for the debate but agreed that it would be held on a date agreed upon by the two sides during a meeting of the House Business Committee scheduled for March 16.

Dr Muscat accepted the proposal and withdrew his request.