London Britain and Italy announced plans Sunday for a joint initiative to cut off the flow of illegal immigrants into Western Europe through the Balkans and punish gangs responsible for smuggling people.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Premier Giuliano Amato pledged in a commentary published Sunday in The Observer newspaper to work together to combat what they agreed was "the world's fastest growing criminal business."
Blair's Downing Street office confirmed the new initiative, which includes joint immigration patrols and tougher sentences for smugglers.
"This is something that the U.K., with Italy, is really leading the way in," Immigration Minister Barbara Roche told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Blair and Amato said that in the first 10 months of 2000, more than 50,000 migrants are estimated to have passed through Bosnia on their way to the West.
The route through the western Balkans has become one of the busiest transit points for illegal immigrants from Iraq, China and Eastern Europe.
The United Nations estimated that it could be responsible for up to 10 percent of Europe's illegal immigrants.
The European Union "must act decisively to ensure that the western Balkans, so long prey to ethnic conflict, does not become captive to organized criminal structures," Blair and Amato wrote. "This is why European governments must work more closely to tackle the flow of illegal immigration."
Official figures released last month show that Britain has become the main destination for asylum seekers, and with Italy's vulnerability to the traffickers because of its long Adriatic coastline, both leaders said they were well-placed to launch the crackdown, which they hoped would be adopted across Europe.