A European Union supporter in Birmingham, England, protests against the country's plans to withdraw from the EU. File photo: REUTERS
A European Union supporter in Birmingham, England, protests against the country's plans to withdraw from the EU. File photo: REUTERS

Brussels — The EU said on Thursday that it was discussing plans with UN agencies to set up migrant processing centres in north African and other countries but insisted it would not create a "Guantanamo Bay for migrants".

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said it envisaged deals that fully protect migrants rescued at sea, under a proposal that will be debated at next week’s EU summit in Brussels. "I want to be very clear on this. I’m against a Guantanamo Bay for migrants," migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news briefing. "This is something that is against our European values."

Washington triggered global outrage when it began using the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay Cuba to hold terror suspects in harsh conditions after the September 11 2001 attacks.

"We are exploring together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees how we can further engage northern African countries in discussions on possibilities for regional disembarkation schemes," Avramopoulos said.

The EU is already working with the IOM and the UNHCR to help migrants in detention centres in Libya return to their countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Avramopoulos said the UN agencies would ensure genuine refugees fleeing war or persecution can settle in Europe while economic migrants are returned home in dignity and with enough resources to restart their lives. In addition to north African countries, such as Tunisia, Brussels is also considering non-EU countries in Europe, such as Albania.

However, Avramopoulos said "no expression of willingness" has come from a potential host country because the EU is still discussing how the centres will work and has made no formal proposal.

"The way I see this is as an agreement of countries around the Mediterranean to ensure the people get the protection they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve," he said. "But it must also mean that getting on the boat does not mean a free ride to the EU." He confirmed the EU would make sure the centres are in a safe place.

EU leaders are to discuss the centres at a June 28-29 summit as the bloc seeks to bolster its external borders. A mini-summit is due on Sunday to try to break the deadlock over reforming asylum rules that stipulate migrants must be processed in the country where they first arrive.

Countries such as Italy and Greece complain they have unfairly had to shoulder the burden since the EU was hit in 2015 by its worst migration crisis since the Second World War.