ROME (Reuters) - European Union countries should help Italy absorb the huge number of migrants arriving by boat from North Africa, by agreeing to take in people rescued in international waters, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman said on Friday.
The EU law governing asylum seekers - the Dublin Regulation - requires the country where a person first arrives to handle their application, putting extra pressure on countries, like Italy, on the EU's outer edge to take in migrants.
But those rescued in international waters could be taken in by any EU country, perhaps according to a negotiated quota system, said Carlotta Sami, southern Europe's spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"This is particularly needed in the case of Syrians, but could be also (done) for other nationalities that in this moment represent very vulnerable groups," she told Reuters.
Last year, the majority of the more than 40,000 migrants who reached Italy by sea were fleeing Syria's civil war and Eritrea's harsh military service. Most of the 366 people who drowned in a shipwreck off Sicily in October were Eritrean.
So far this year, more than 50,000 people have been rescued by Italy's navy and coastguard, more that reached Italy in the whole of 2013, and the number is set to exceed the 62,000 who came in 2011, at the height of the "Arab Spring" uprisings.
"Asylum claims could be processed jointly by several EU member states, and this could be followed by an assignment of quotas among different states that could host and receive a certain number of refugees," Sami said.
Asylum requests to EU members rose more than 30 percent last year, with Germany receiving almost 110,000, more than any other country in the world, according to the UNHCR.
On Friday, Germany agreed to take in an additional 10,000 Syrians this year through resettlement, doubling its original offer, far more than any other European nation.
About two-thirds of those who arrive in Italy move on to other EU countries but, because of the Dublin Regulation, often are sent back to Italy, where they cannot find jobs or housing.
Italy's economy has shrunk by more than 9 percent since 2007 and unemployment has soared to levels last seen in the 1970s.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino, Gabriele Pileri and Hanna Rantala; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)