Malta hopes to resettle all immigrants with legal status, about 2,000, to other member states through the first EU-wide relocation programme, which is expected to be launched by the European Commission shortly.

Some of these refugees, including whole families and children, have been "stuck" in Malta for years.

The government expressed this wish to European Commission officials during meetings in Malta last month.

There are only rough estimates of how many immigrants there are on the island at the moment because the numbers fluctuate, new immigrants arrive while others leave illegally. The latest counts, according to army sources, show that there are 1,250 people (this is an accurate number) in detention centres and another 4,000 to 5,000 in open centres and residences. The 2,000 immigrants Malta is hoping to resettle form part of this last group.

"This should be acceptable from the European point of view particularly considering that, in November 2008, the member states agreed to take 10,000 Iraqi refugees based in third countries," Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said.

A Commission official described Malta's demand as "acceptable", adding that 2,000 refugees were not that many. "It only means that each member state will be ready to take in some 70 refugees", he said.

Brussels is preparing to submit its formal proposal on the tailor-made pilot project in two weeks' time.

The programme caters for immigrants who have been given legal protection and excludes illegal immigrants.

The 27 member states will be asked to say whether they wish to take part in the project next month and, if so, to say how many refugees they would be willing to take.

So far, France is the only country to have made a concrete gesture when in July it took in 91 Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, Sri Lankans and Ivorians who had been granted legal protection by Malta.

Brussels sources said Commissioner Jacques Barrot, who is expected to end his mandate this October, has already presented the Swedish EU Presidency with his ideas for rationalising the project.

He promised financial support for the countries willing to participate and three eventual scenarios have been drawn up.

In the first, member states would present a common proposal under the auspices of a leader country, with possible support from an international organisation, such as the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the second scenario, a country would present its own proposal, following the example of France.

In this case, however, the proposals had to be worthwhile, a Commission official insisted. "If the idea is to resettle five refugees, it is hardly worth making a proposal," he said. "In this case, the country may not be eligible for aid under the European Refugee Fund as the offer won't be worth it."

In the third scenario, irrespective of the structure (one member state or several), the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration would participate in and coordinate the project.

According to the Commission, it is only once the interested member states have made their intentions known that it will issue a call for proposals to finance future projects.