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Spain to take 'some' refugees

Spain plans to take "some refugees" from Malta in the next six months as a sign of concrete solidarity towards the island, which has experienced a large influx of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.

Spain had so far stopped short of committing itself to share the burden with Malta and resettle some of the 2,000 asylum seekers on the island since the launch of the European Commission's voluntary pilot programme more than six months ago.

Though Brussels had pushed Spain and other large member states to show solidarity and help Malta, Spain had not made any commitment even though high-profile Spanish personalities, such as the Foreign Minister and the King, visited Malta last month.

However, taking over the EU presidency at the beginning of this month has apparently led to Spain's change of heart.

Pressed by The Times yesterday to say whether Spain would take some refugees from Malta, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said that, although his government was sceptical about the efficacy of burden sharing, Spain would be making an official pledge to help Malta. Mr Rubalcaba did not specify the number of refugees his country would resettle, although he gave the impression they would not be many. However, he said as Spain was now in the EU's driving seat his country felt the need to lead by example, even on this issue.

Although Malta was initially calculating it would be able to resettle all 2,000 asylum seekers through this pilot project, other member states do not seem very enthusiastic to help and only a few have pledged their support.

With Spain's participation, the number of member states making official pledges stands at seven out of 26. Spain joins France, the UK, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia.

The largest offer has been made by France, which promised to resettle about 200 refugees, but the total number of pledges remains very low and far from the original government target.

At the same time, the majority of committed member states have only made symbolic pledges, such as the UK which promised to take just 10 asylum seekers.

The Spanish Interior Minister yesterday admitted that, although solidarity was the way forward when it came to combating illegal immigration and managing regular migration, this was easier said than done.

Mr Rubalcaba said: "It is very difficult to convince those member states which are not pressed with this problem to collaborate," referring specifically to northern member states without mentioning any names.

"I really don't think distributing the problem is the solution," he said, referring to Malta's and Italy's pleas to make burden sharing compulsory.

"I think the way forward should be to have common asylum rules so all member states will apply the same measures when faced with influxes of immigrants. This will make all member states responsible in the same way and it is only then that we can really say immigration is an EU problem."

The Spanish EU presidency was officially launched in Madrid yesterday.

Addressing a joint press conference at the Palacio de la Moncloa - the official residence of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - European Council President Herman Von Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU would be concentrating on the economic recovery during the first half of this year.

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