After eight months of summits, debates and joint declarations on what to do with the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe, one figure sums up the EU’s achievement so far: 272.
That’s the number of asylum-seekers who have been relocated from the countries of their arrival to elsewhere in the bloc. According to statistics provided this week by the European Commission, 82 migrants were moved from Greece, which saw an influx of 850,000 in 2015. In Italy, 190 migrants left for Sweden, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Finland.
Two-hundred-seventy-two is a fraction of the 160,000 people EU countries are supposed to accommodate under a controversial temporary plan that took months to hammer out, and it speaks to the challenge that European Council President Donald Tusk calls a “delivery deficit.”
A series of daunting obstacles, both logistical and political, stand in the way of carrying out the EU’s relocation plans, according to frustrated officials in Brussels, aid workers and migration experts.
‘A drop in the ocean’
In early November, a group of EU officials led by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gathered at the Athens airport to escort 30 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to an Aegean airliner, which would fly them to Luxembourg.
After posing for pictures with the exhilarated migrants, Tsipras acknowledged that the initiative — Europe’s first concrete action to relocate some of the more than 1 million refugees and migrants who arrived in 2015 — was “a drop in the ocean.”
“We hope that this becomes a stream, and then a river of humanity and shared responsibility,” Tsipras said at a press conference alongside European Parliament President Martin Schulz, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
So far the only “river of humanity” is the one of refugees crossing into Europe. The promised effort to relocate them from the camps in Greece and Italy where they first arrive to more permanent homes in other EU countries has largely failed to materialize.
Officials blame the EU’s struggle to implement the relocation of migrants on a range of logistical and administrative barriers, as well as on the political sensitivity of the migration issue across Europe, where rising anti-refugee sentiment has undermined many countries’ commitment to solving the crisis.
European Commission statistics show only 272 migrants have been relocated.
Now some officials fear that if the temporary relocation effort doesn’t speed up, it will give political ammunition to opponents of the European Commission’s plan to establish a permanent one.
“We can’t move forward on migration only with those ad hoc decisions,” said a European diplomat. “Plus, there’s a lack of will to establish a permanent mechanism.”
Last month, Angelino Alfano, Italy’s interior minister, described as a “symbol of victory” a plane carrying 19 young Eritreans from Ciampino airport in Rome to Luleå in Sweden. Italy, he said, would send an additional 100 people “in the next few days.”
There are not many places for these refugees to go. As of the first week in January, only 17 EU countries have made available just over 4,200 places for refugees out of the 160,000 that are supposed to be relocated, according to the Commission.
No place to go
Officials say the relocation process is moving slowly because many countries were ill-prepared for the sudden and massive arrival of migrants and unwilling to invest in the necessary reception and identification capacities in frontline countries like Greece and Italy.
Some, such as Germany and Sweden, closed their borders because they could no longer handle the influx of migrants. Others have steadfastly resisted taking their share of migrants often for historical and political reasons.
Countries like Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary have refused migrants while other countries like France and the Netherlands have offered to take fewer people than the number they had agreed to under the relocation scheme.
France, for example, has made just 900 places available for migrants out of the 20,000 they had promised to provide in September, according to figures issued by the Commission.
Another factor slowing down the relocation process: the refugees themselves. Humanitarian workers say many migrants know little about how the relocation is supposed to work, or are even reluctant to be relocated. Some fear they will be stuck in the countries where they arrive; others are reluctant to be relocated to certain EU countries.
“So far, the hotspots are the only concrete element to solve the migration crisis” — European diplomat
Many EU officials and humanitarian workers say there are too few fully operational “hotspots” — reception centers where refugee arrivals are first processed — in frontline countries. Only three of a planned 11 hotspots are currently operational.
“It is crucial that efforts continue to set up and operationalize the remaining hotspots in order to ensure a consistent management of the migration flows,” stated a report issued in December by the then-Luxembourg presidency of the EU.
Italy has two operational hotspots, in Lampedusa and Trapani. But Greece has just one, in Lesbos, out of a planned five that authorities are trying to set up. Until they are fully up and running, migrants cannot be properly received, identified and registered, experts say.
“So far, the hotspots are the only concrete element to solve the migration crisis,” said the European diplomat. “In Italy, the identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants are working.”
Even where hotspots are running, they don’t always do what they’re supposed to. Some officials say Greece has been busing migrants to the Macedonian border and failing to do systematic fingerprinting and entering of data in the central Eurodac system. The European Commission also recently launched legal action against Italy, Greece and Croatia for failing to register all migrants in an EU-wide database.
In a recent report the Commission called on countries to provide more Eurodac fingerprint devices and more experts to “ensure the full roll-out of the hotspots.”
EU officials say hotspots are proving difficult to implement because national authorities have not provided sufficient accommodation and reception capacities for migrants.
According to the Commission report, Greece is supposed to be setting up 4,500 temporary accommodation places in Lesbos, Leros and Chios by this month. But it needs to “rapidly” complete the construction of 7,000 places for all five hotspots and “improve its welcome to vulnerable groups, in particular unaccompanied minors.”
Frontex, the EU border management agency, has more than 400 experts deployed in the Greek islands, including in the hotspot of Moria in Lesbos.
The experts include screeners, interpreters and debriefers “who conduct interviews and gather information about people-smugglers,” said Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure.
But the agency needs more personnel. It recently launched a call for over 775 experts, including 600 for Greece. “Member states gave us 400 but it doesn’t meet the goal,” Moncure said. “The challenge for us is to have the right people in the right places.”
Humanitarian workers working with migrants in Greece acknowledge relocation has not been very popular among migrants.
“There are not as many requests as we would expect,” said Antigoni Angelaki, who works with migrants for a Greek NGO called Metadrasi. “I think because the borders are still open for certain nationalities. They can reach the borders they wish in a shorter period of time.”
Aid workers say refugees also often refuse to seek asylum and be fingerprinted in Greece because they fear getting stuck there. Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, migrants are required to be identified and registered in their first country of arrival.
“It’s difficult to sell the idea of relocation to migrants when they have a specific location in mind,” said Constance Theisen, a humanitarian officer for Médecins Sans Frontières in Athens. “Their information about Europe has been given to them by smugglers. Plus, they have to wait an average of one month to be relocated, which is sometimes discouraging.”
European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos looks at migrants through a metal fence at the “Moria” camp, near the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on October 16, 2015. The European Union’s top migration official was visiting the Greek island of Lesbos today, a day after the dangerous Aegean Sea crossing attempted by thousands of migrants claimed seven more lives.
The relocation of migrants is also in the hands of EU countries, which officials say can be picky about who they want to accept. Some “would rather take an engineer who speaks their language and has family in the country,” said a European diplomat.
“Plus, if Romania offers to take some migrants, who would want to send them there?” the diplomat said. “If a country like Romania does it, other countries will no longer believe in the system. Countries like Germany, Sweden are the only places which give migrants hope to start a new life.”
However, though relocation has started very slowly, there have been signs of improvement in recent weeks and the interest in relocation is increasing.
Angelaki, the humanitarian worker, said migrants are becoming better informed about the process as borders have closed in recent months.
“Maybe now with winter, migrants will think about other alternatives than crossing the border with Macedonia,” she said. “It’s a first step.”