Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

EU asks member states to take in 40,000 refugees

Proposal is limited to refugees from Syria and Eritrea and faces fierce opposition from domestic constituencies

The European Union has asked member states to accept 40,000 asylum seekers following mounting pressure from the United Nations and rights organizations to take in more people who travel by boat from Libya to Italian shores.

The scheme would apply to refugees from Syria and Eritrea who arrived after April 15 and would relocate them from Italy and Greece over the next two years to another EU country. Recipient countries would receive about $6,500 per refugee and review their applications for asylum. Another 20,000 people from outside the bloc will be taken in according to a distribution plan that aims to spread the burden of resettlement more fairly among member states based on economic indicators and past efforts to resettle people. Italy, Malta and Greece now receive the bulk of the 100,000 migrants and refugees who seek assistance at European borders.

The emergency measure will be put to a vote in the coming weeks after member countries weigh in on the proposal at the European Parliament, according to a European official, where it faces fierce opposition from nationalist parties that won elections by campaigning on anti-immigrant stances. The official, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera the commission isn’t expecting a decision before the end of the summer.

“It’s hard to speculate. We're obviously ambitious and we’re also optimistic in the sense that there is clearly a momentum in the migratory crisis going right now,” she said.

France, which initially balked at a proposal that would impose quotas on member states, has tentatively supported the idea. But others, such as Hungary, have dismissed the call for mandatory quotas as “bordering on insanity” and said they would only incentivize smugglers to bring more people to Europe.

The announcement comes just weeks after more than 900 people, who had paid smuggling fees to traffickers, died when their boat capsized on the Mediterranean Sea. The incident caused an international outcry about Europe's slow response to the crisis. In 2014, about 3,000 migrants and refugees are estimated to have died at sea fleeing hunger, poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa — more than four times as many as in 2013.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in a statement that Wednesday’s measure is aimed to “quickly save lives and provide protection in the EU for people in need, be they at sea, in the EU or in third countries.” 

On May 18, the U.N. Security Council backed a military intervention in Libya to crack down on human traffickers by deploying warships to the Mediterranean. A contested proposal to destroy the boats in Libyan waters is still waiting on approval from the body.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday reiterated his doubts over staging a military intervention against the smugglers and said there were "other ways" to fight them, stressing the EU's responsibility to take in more refugees before resorting to military means.

"I welcome the announcement by the European Commission of a proposal for the relocation of 40,000 asylum seekers as a step in the right direction," he said.

"I encourage the EU member states to show compassion as they consider this important proposal to share their resettlement responsibilities," he added.

With wire services

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