Ministers from five European countries said Monday that they hoped to start digital fingerprinting for passports by 2006 in an effort to improve security, but they split over a German proposal to put illegal migrants in transit camps in North Africa.
Interior ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy held two days of informal talks in a 19th-century villa in Florence to prepare initiatives they hope will eventually be adopted throughout the 25-member European Union.
But they failed to overcome their differences over Germany's proposal, backed by Italy, to set up camps in North Africa to process asylum seekers before they set out on perilous sea journeys to southern Europe.
In a statement at the end of the talks, the ministers said they were hoping to introduce the fingerprint measure for passports issued in their countries starting in 2006. Conservative Italian politicians hailed the measure as an important step in the fight against terrorism and immigrant smuggling.
The transit camp proposal, however, was the focus of the meeting.
Although Spain, like Italy, is flooded with immigrants who have made clandestine voyages across the Mediterranean from North Africa, it sided with France against the German idea.
"For France, it's out of the question to accept transit camps or shelters of any kind," Dominique de Villepin, the French interior minister, said at a closing news conference. Spain's interior minister, Jose Antonio Alonso, said such camps would not provide humanitarian guarantees.
Opponents of the transit camp proposal have expressed fears that bids for asylum might not be handled fairly. A summary of the discussions appeared to take into consideration the concerns of international organizations about transit camps in countries such as Libya that have been criticized for human rights violations.
Italy has been concentrating its efforts to keep thousands of migrants from illegally reaching its shores by working with Libya, a major trading partner. Officials said many of the smugglers' boats depart from Libya.
Interior Minister Otto Schily of Germany, who initially proposed the transit camps, said the initiative would deal with the problem "where it is born."
His Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Pisanu, who has been trying to encourage Europe to take more concerted action against immigrant smuggling, stressed that any camp plan should be part of a broader policy.
While noting that there is a "clear distinction between economic immigrants and asylum seekers," the ministers' statement said efforts were needed to develop "capacity building of asylum policy" in transit countries.