EU asks member states to admit 40,000 asylum seekers

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The EU on Wednesday asked its member states to admit 40,000 asylum seekers from Syria and Eritrea landing in Italy and Greece, which have been overstretched by an influx of migrants.

The emergency proposal, which comes atop another one to resettle in member states some 20,000 Syrian refugees, is in response to a surge in migrants making the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean.

Both Rome and Athens, which are struggling with the wave of migrants, appealed to the 26 other EU states to share the burden.

Italy's refugee-reception facilities are stretched to breaking point with 80,000 people currently being housed in them and local authorities are growing increasingly impatient with the demands placed upon them.

"We... have a proposal for an emergency mechanism to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers to other European (member) states," EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a press conference.

"Syrians and Eritreans will be relocated from Italy and Greece to other European Union member states over a period of two years," he said.

The measure concerns people arriving in those countries after April 15 this year, the commissioner said.

The proposal suggests migrants be distributed according to four criteria: gross national product, population, unemployment and the number of asylum requests already registered in the country.

The commission said member states will be given 6,000 euros (about $6,500) per asylum seeker.

Repeating an earlier proposal, Avramopoulos said the European Union is also asking member states to admit over two years 20,000 Syrian refugees from outside Europe who have "a clear need for international protection".

Under the plan, a country like France would resettle 2,375 Syrian refugees.

However, EU states Britain, Ireland and Denmark can opt out of both the relocation and resettlement schemes under existing EU treaties, according to EU officials.

Avramopoulos insisted that the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU, was not proposing a quota system for distributing people.

Many member states, which are under pressure from anti-immigrant parties during tough economic times, have strongly objected to quotas.

"It's up to each member to decide how many (potential) refugees they will grant refugee status (to)," he added.

"If countries want to relocate or settle more, they can, but we want to insure minimum solidarity," Avramopoulos said.

However, EU sources said, countries must first admit the 40,000 asylum seekers based on a "distribution key," which looks like a quota.

They then process their requests, either accepting or rejecting them.

In practice, a country like France is asked to take in 6,752 Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers.

It opens a breach in the Dublin rules that require the country where asylum seekers first land to take them in.

The task is bound to be particularly difficult because Britain, Hungary, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Poland oppose mandatory relocation.

"It does seem as if some member states were reluctant but they have to accept it's not about words," European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said. "It's about action." Avramopoulos spoke of an "emergency mechanism" as Brussels fears the arrival of a wave of migrants and asylum seekers during the summer in Italy, Greece and Malta.

He said the mechanism could also be activated for Malta, if it suddenly received an influx of migrants.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who met Wednesday with Juncker and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, welcomed the commission proposal.

"I encourage the EU member states to show compassion as they consider this important proposal," he told reporters.

But Ban poured cold water on a plan approved by EU nations to launch an unprecedented naval mission starting next month to fight human traffickers responsible for the flood of migrants.

"There may be some other ways" than military action, he said.

The scheme backed by foreign and defence ministers in Brussels will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.

But the EU is still waiting for a UN resolution that will allow it to destroy boats that belong to people smugglers in Libyan waters, where political turmoil has created a safe harbour for traffickers.