In September 2015, European states pledged to relocate 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over two years. As that period came to an end this week, only 19,740 people from Greece and 8,839 from Italy – or 17.5% of the promised number – were relocated under the program.
EU member and associated states now have until the end of this year to relocate individuals and families who have already been registered. The European Commission has predicted that this will bring the total number of resettled people to 37, 000, a far cry from their initial commitments.
The UN Migration Director, General William Lacy Swing, and the UNHCR have urged the EU to continue the programme beyond the deadline, albeit with recommendations for improvement. Both emphasized the acute need for collective action and responsibility sharing by European states, until the Dublin system is reformed.
The resettlement commitments that were made by European governments are legal obligations, and must be treated as such.
For asylum seekers who do not have family reunification claims, such pledges represent one of the very few options for safe onward passage. And yet states across the continent have flouted their duties, leaving thousands of eligible asylum seekers and refugees trapped.
Poland and Hungary have refused to accept a single asylum seeker under the programme, while Austria and the Czech Republic have filled less than 1% of their assigned places. Only 14 member states and associated countries have accepted unaccompanied minors. The UK chose to opt-out of the resettlement programme.
Such action contravenes states’ repeated affirmations of the principle of shared responsibility for refugees and displaced people. From the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees to the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, this has long underpinned international efforts to coordinate a response to the refugee crisis.
The EU’s relocation scheme was far from perfect.
The programme was only open to asylum seekers from countries with a high rate of acceptance across Europe, which meant that it largely focussed on those from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq. It therefore excluded other vulnerable groups based on nationality alone, which faced criticism from the UNHCR and calls to lower the threshold.
Furthermore, only those who arrived on the Greek islands before 20 March 2016 qualified for the scheme. The exclusion of asylum seekers from the scheme, on the arbitrary basis of their arrival date, is unlawful and must be overturned.
Furthermore, new initiatives released by the European Commission, including a pledge to resettle another 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers (with a particular focus on those in North Africa), must not be used to distract from those already in Greece and Italy.
The reticence of EU states to comply with their obligations under the 2015 Agenda has lead to the suffering of men, women and children caught in limbo in Greece and Italy. To end the scheme now would confirm their effective abandonment.
European governments can, and must, redouble their efforts to relocate vulnerable people from Greece and Italy. Failure to comply with their legal obligations condemns refugees to prolonged stasis and suffering.