Europe's refugee relocation plan risks crumbling due to country reluctance

Refugees and migrants resting outside a passenger terminal at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, on Feb 8, 2016.
Refugees and migrants resting outside a passenger terminal at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, on Feb 8, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's flagship plan to stem Europe's migration crisis by redistributing refugees around the bloc risks crumbling as EU states balk at sharing the burden, diplomats, officials and experts have told AFP.

Since adopting the scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from frontline states Greece and Italy, European Union countries have moved at a snail's pace, taking in just 500 people.

Having pushed through his pet project for easing a crisis that saw more than one million people flood Europe's shores last year, former Luxembourg premier Juncker last month vowed "not to give up" on the scheme.

But two EU diplomats, an official from an EU country, an analyst, and a person working on relocation spoke of growing doubts that the plan will succeed in the face of the reluctance of many governments in the 28-nation bloc.

"I think people are afraid it's going to fail," one diplomat told AFP. "Some are losing hope and some are exploiting this loss of hope."

European sources blame the delays on a series of factors: governments trying to screen militants in the wake of the Paris attacks, a lack of housing and education for asylum seekers, and logistical problems over chartering planes.

They say some countries are setting unacceptable conditions by refusing Muslims, black people or large families, with Eastern European states the worst for discriminating on religious or racial grounds.

"They (other countries) ask us not to be black, they ask us not to be big families, they ask us for more security," Greece's interior minister for migration Yiannis Mouzalas said, adding that less than half of all EU states had offered relocation places.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the most vocal eastern European opponent to admitting Muslims, saying in October that "Islam has never been part of Europe."

The relocation plan is designed to help people fleeing the mainly Muslim war-torn countries of Syria and Iraq as well as the repressive east African state of Eritrea.

In the wake of attacks like the Paris massacre, officials working on relocation said France, Belgium, Sweden were leading a "misplaced" push for stricter checks to weed out militants from the bona fide refugee.

The scheme's failure so far means many migrants have lost confidence that they will be moved from Greece or Italy, and instead are making their own way to preferred destinations like Germany and Sweden.

This is putting extra strain on the EU's passport-free Schengen area, in which several states have already reintroduced border checks.

"On the whole the sentiment that is felt in this Brussels bubble is that this (relocation) plan will never really be properly implemented, that it has been too idealistic," an eastern European diplomat told AFP.

With cases such as the Cologne New Year sex assaults still in the headlines, the European Commission had also failed to communicate its ideas on how refugees would be integrated into their new countries, the diplomat added.

"The only thing we see in central and eastern Europe are the experiences of the western European countries, which are absolutely horrible, especially as presented by the media," the diplomat said.

Mr Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, suspected EU countries were resisting the relocation quotas because they saw "no end in sight" to the migrant crisis.

Instead, he urged the EU to commit to a large-scale scheme to directly take 500,000 people from Syrian refugee camps overseas in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, expanding it from the 20,000 Europe has so far pledged to take.

The European Commission warned against writing off its migration policy.

"President Juncker compared the situation we face now with the refugee crisis to the situation in 2010 with the financial crisis," a spokesman told AFP.

"Many speculated about the euro failing but five years later, recovery is underway and the EU is expecting two per cent growth this year. The building blocks of a sustainable migration policy are now on the table, what is needed is implementation."