We shouldn't automatically label immigrants 'illegal', but tell that to the EU, especially when it comes to Italy's accord with Libya

If I could delete just one term from the English language it would have to be "illegal immigrants". The notion that it is a crime to risk one's life fleeing poverty in search of a better life abroad is an affront to the most elementary tenets of justice. And yet politicians and journalists (myself included, in the past) routinely designate such people as illegal without a second thought.

This even occurs at moments of great tragedy. Several news reports this week have informed us that Italy is seeking a new EU blueprint on illegal immigration. This followed the discovery that 73 Eritreans died because the ship bringing them from Libya to Sicily drifted for 20 days due to lack of fuel without receiving assistance from passing vessels (except one fishing boat). The inference that these victims were flouting the law was made despite prima facie evidence suggesting they would have had solid reasons to claim asylum in Europe; Amnesty International's latest annual report describes Eritrea as a state where virtually no opposition to its autocratic president Issayas Afewerki is tolerated.

It is difficult to have any confidence that the EU is going to improve the situation, at least in the short term. On paper, the union is fully committed to international law, particularly the 1951 refugee convention. Yet none of its governments have raised any audible protest against Italy's signature of an accord with Libya that came into effect in May as part of a dubious buddying-up exercise between Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi. Under it, asylum seekers can be automatically sent back to Libya (a key transit country for Africans trying to reach Europe) without their applications receiving any attention on this continent.

Almost certainly, this agreement is depriving refugees of the protection that international law has theoretically guaranteed them for over half a century. The European Council for Refugees and Exile (ECRE), an alliance of human rights organisations, estimates that over half of the asylum seekers arriving in Italy qualify for refugee status.

There was much alarm – most of it contrived – among the political establishment in June when the BNP and other racist parties performed well in the European parliamentary elections. Rather than being outraged by their hate-filled manifestos, the European mainstream have been pandering to the far right for ages. International law has been shunted aside as if it is an optional extra by EU initiatives over recent years.

Frontex, the union's agency for managing its external borders, has paid no real heed to asylum issues since it began operating in 2005, viewing the number of foreigners it can help keep out of the EU as a barometer of its success. In pursuit of these ignoble aims, it has taken part in operations during which naval officers have aimed their guns directly at terrified asylum seekers.

Boasting two far-right parties in its ruling coalition – Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and Lega Nord (Northern League) – Italy has gone the furthest of all EU countries in criminalising asylum seekers. But its callous inhumanity is by no means unique. Denmark, for example, is so eager to expel a group of Iraqis to whom it has denied asylum that it arrested them while they sheltered in a church earlier this month and is now restricting their access to lawyers. Concerns that the Iraqis' lives could be in danger if they are forced to return home have not pricked many consciences in the supposedly liberal-minded Danish government.

Contrary to some claims, the EU is not swamped with refugees. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) last year requested help with resettling over 120,000 people. Only 7,000 of these refugees were accepted in EU countries. It is this lack of compassion that must be tackled if Europe is to have a fair system of asylum, rather than one that treats victims as criminals.