The European Union (EU) is set to relocate its first group of refugees from a camp in Italy to Sweden on Friday, a modest first step in the implementation of a refugee quota system that will move people from overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece to states across the EU.
On Friday, the EU's migration and home affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Luxembourg's minister for foreign affairs Jean Asselborn will meet with a group of refugees at Rome’s Ciampino’s airport ahead of their departure to Sweden, where 20 Eritrean asylum seekers volunteered to be moved as part of the EU’s quota system announced last month.
“This is a historic day for Europe," Avramopoulos said in a statement on Thursday. "It is a great expression of European solidarity, both with those in need of protection, and between our own Member States.”
It is unclear how many refugees will be moved in the coming weeks. In July, Sweden committed to taking in 821 from Italy and 548 from Greece as part of a first total of 40,000 people from Eritrea, Iraq and Syria to be redistributed across the EU in the next two years.
In September, the bloc announced that another 120,000 refugees would be moved. Citing outreach efforts to the Eritrean community “to build trust and encourage participation,” Avramopoulos said in a statement that he expects to see an increase in the number of relocations “in the coming weeks."
Friday's planned relocation is the result of months of emergency meetings in response to the biggest refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II. About 558,000 people have entered the EU, and nearly 3,000 have died crossing the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The refugee quota system has been controversial, with Europe divided over how to tackle the arrival of thousands of people fleeing conflict in Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The U.K. and eastern European member countries, most notably Hungary, have so far refused to collaborate on a continent-wide effort to resettle refugees.
Susan Fratzke, policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute's international center, said Friday's move is a promising first step. "It's, of course, a good sign, but there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered about how this could work on a large scale," she said.
Noting that so far only Sweden and Luxemburg — attractive, wealthy destination countries for refugees — are actively resettling people according to the scheme, she questioned the viability of a quota system reliant on volunteers.
"The real question is, will you be able to relocate refugees to countries where they don’t want to go?" she said. "We already know that most people are looking to claim asylum in Sweden, Germany and northern Europe more broadly; it may be difficult to relocate [them] to countries in eastern Europe or elsewhere."
Another issue is that of eligibility. "What will happen to those who aren't Eritrean or Syrian and aren’t qualified for relocation?" she added
Opposition from member countries to the quota system has grown since a majority of 28 states reluctantly accepted to adopt the scheme in September, starting with the decision to resettle a first 40,000 refugees. The promise to relocate another 120,000 still awaits adoption by the EU's Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council while some member countries have already indicated they won't comply with its decision.
Avramopoulos, thanking Luxemburg and Sweden on Thursday for their adoption of the relocation scheme, said he was hopeful that other countries would follow their example. “We are sure that the other Member States will soon be ready to play their part,” he said in today's statement.
Under the scheme, member countries receive a stipend of $6,770 per refugee to cover the costs of resettlement. Countries where refugees are departing from will get $564 to pay for transportation costs from places such as Lampedusa, an island off the Italian coast where thousands of people are smuggled on rubber dinghies from Libya. On Friday, Avramopoulos will visit the island's designated “hotspot” — areas where EU support teams help local authorities process asylum applications.