Richard North, 06/03/2015  

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Immigration is back high profile for a little while, especially with the publication of the Migration Observatory report and this report from Migration Watch, which puts Labour's policy in the frame.

Much is made of an "illegal immigrant amnesty" where more than 220,000 failed and delayed asylum-seekers and migrants were granted permission to stay permanently from 2006 onwards. The Tories then inherited a backlog of a further 368,100 cases from Labour in 2010.

This is about half-a-million out of seven million immigrants during the so-called "open door" years of 1997 and 2001 – about seven percent of the total, yet it is these "asylum seekers" which get the lions' share of attention, including many of the photographs.

This emphasis is interesting as, despite asylum seekers being the smaller part of the problem, the public often see immigration in terms the surge of migrants across the Channel.

Thus, when we see sneaking in to the Guardian details of a speech on immigration by Dimitris Avramopoulos, home affairs commissioner, this is quite significant. What we see the next stage in the move to create a Comprehensive European Migration Policy, with plans, amongst other things, to establish immigrant-processing centres outside the EU for the first time.

This, we are told, is a "radical policy departure" aimed at stemming the movement of hundreds of thousands of people across the Mediterranean, with the Commission fast-tracking a policy paper on migration.

If this comes off, it will mirror the Australian stratagem of offshoring the processing of asylum seekers, by-passing the 1951 Refugee Convention by preventing refugees seeking right of abode in EEA countries. It will also prevent failed asylum seekers clogging up the system.

On the cards are migrant-processing offices in key transit countries such as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon, with the idea is gaining traction in the EU. As well as Italy, France is also a strong supporter of such a scheme, while the German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, is said to be pushing for EU facilities in countries such as Egypt.

Small EU member states disproportionately affected by the flow of migrants, such as Malta, are keen on the idea, and one can expect countries such as Hungary to be following developments closely.

According to the Guardian, the Commission has previously resisted pressure on the issue from Member State governments. Avramopoulos's statement is thus said to represent a U-turn, although not all aspects of the plan are going to be treated with equal enthusiasm by all states.

There is, for instance, strong opposition in some countries to a proposal that would entail shouldering the refugee burden more equitably across Europe. Migration experts say that, of the 28 members of the EU, 18 have small immigrant communities and few are keen to see that change.

The details, though, are less important than the timing of the initiative which could have considerable influence on the UK debate, and on the progress towards a referendum – if it ever happens.

This certainly fits with the idea that the Commission is working up to something that will be helpful to Mr Cameron in his endeavour to demonstrate that the key of immigration is being addressed. Certainly, the timetable looks suspiciously helpful.

Says First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in May the Commission will be presenting "a new migration agenda" with "an improved governance to strengthen our asylum system, set a sound course on legal migration, act more vigorously against irregular migration and ensure more secure borders".

This paves the way very nicely for a Cameron to roll out his treaty change agenda, ready for a timely victory when he needs it most - just before his 2017 referendum - offering a "European solution" to a problem with international dimensions, which cannot easily be dealt with by any single nation state.

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