THE GROWING tide of illegal immigrants entering the European Union via the Balkans has prompted a joint initiative by Tony Blair and the Italian premier, Guiliano Amato, to crack down on human traffickers.
The Blair-Amato plan, which has yet to be backed by the EU, calls for the strongest possible measures against the criminal gangs.
It also calls for a fundamental re-think of nearly 30 years of "zero immigration" policies in Europe. It wants to encourage the legal immigration of skilled workers to help meet the EU's growing skills shortage.
The United Nations says the Balkans route could be responsible for up to 10 per cent of Europe's illegal immigrants, some paying up to pounds 2,700 for the hazardous journey.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that in the first 10 months of last year, more than 50,000 illegal immigrants passed through Bosnia.
"Many of the criminals involved also deal in drugs, prostitution, pornography and slavery," the two leaders said in a joint article in The Observer setting out their plans. They promised that within four months, Britain and Italy would have experts in place to identify "operational targets", such as the gangs involved in trafficking women
The initiative is politically well-timed: illegal immigration is an explosive issue and both countries have elections coming up. Both governments want to be seen to be doing something about the problem.
The announcement of the initiative is also carefully timed before an informal meeting this week of EU justice and home affairs ministers in Stockholm, which holds the EU presidency. Mr Blair has written to enlist the support of the Prime Minister of Sweden. Yesterday the Swedish minister for development co-operation and migration backed calls for EU action, saying that she expects the issue to be discussed either at the Stockholm summit of EU leaders in March or at the Gothenburg …