Europe Moves to Open Doors to More Refugees

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Major Ivan M. Consiglio / AFP / Getty

A group of 84 Somalis huddle on a Malta patrol boat after being rescued from an inflatable dingy 75 miles of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Every week, around a thousand people chance the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean hoping to escape violence and persecution at home and start a new life in Europe. Many don't make it — just a fortnight ago, 73 Eritreans perished on a passage from Libya to Italy. And those who do make it are rarely welcome: countries including Malta, Spain and Italy say they cannot cope with the influx of refugees, and sometimes have to send them back.

In an effort to help spread the load across Europe, the European Commission unveiled new plans on Wednesday for resettling refugees, arguing that the European Union should "take on a greater share of the burden of meeting resettlement needs worldwide." The scheme could save lives as it aims to discourage people, mainly Africans, from trying to reach Europe illegally, crowded onto rickety boats or hidden in trucks. The Amsterdam-based NGO United Against Racism estimates that, since 1993, over 13,250 hopeful refugees have died while trying to reach Europe.

The proposal is also about helping the E.U. meet its political and moral obligations towards refugees who cannot return to their home countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that for 2010 alone, out of about 10 million refugees worldwide, 203,000 need permanent resettlement. Yet last year, only 6.7% of the refugees resettled globally were accepted by the E.U. — a total of just 4,375. By comparison, over 60,000 refugees were resettled to the United States. The Commission says these low numbers harm the E.U.'s international standing and give the impression of a "Fortress Europe" when it comes to refugees.

Only 10 of the E.U.'s 27 member states regularly accept resettled refugees, while some of the others resettle on an ad-hoc basis. The rates for granting refugee status also differ widely across Europe: Sweden has given asylum to 80% of Iraqi refugees who have applied, while the U.K. and Germany have each only accepted about 10% of applicants from Iraq. Greece has stopped taking Iraqi asylum applications altogether.

Under the Commission's proposal, a Resettlement Expert Group made up of representatives from each member state and other stakeholders, including UNHCR and other NGOs, will prioritize the most deserving cases each year. These could include refugees from war zones, vulnerable single women with children, and people who are traumatized or seriously ill. Target groups could include Iraqis in Syria and Jordan, Somalis from Kenya, or Sudanese from Chad.

E.U. members would annually pledge how many people they would be ready to take. Countries that open their doors will get money from the European Refugee Fund — $5,700 per refugee — and support from the newly created European Asylum Support Office, which would meet regularly to define resettlement priorities. The E.U. would also work closely with transit countries outside Europe, mainly Libya and Turkey, so that asylum seekers can apply for resettlement before attempting any precarious journeys.

If managed efficiently, the Commission says the resettlement scheme could ease the burden on some of the E.U.'s border states. Last year, more than 30,000 people are believed to have made the boat journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles (113 km) from Tunisia. Earlier this year, Italy signed a controversial agreement with Libya allowing Italian authorities to automatically send would-be immigrants back to Libya without screening them for asylum claims — a move that arguably breaches the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.

But refugee activists are skeptical about the resettlement proposal, which is voluntary and still has to be confirmed by E.U. governments. "It's a first step, but it is weak and we don't expect it to have a major impact on the refugee intake," says Bjarte Vandvik, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of NGOs. "It's only on a voluntary basis. We expect many countries will only increase their intake by a few dozen."

Vandvik says public opinion in Europe is still too hostile towards immigration, making little distinction between a refugee fleeing persecution and an illegal immigrant. "The European debate is too inward-looking, and is focused on how not to take in refugees," he says. "A lot of people in Europe think we are swamped, but in 2007, we reached a 20-year low with asylum seekers. We have actually been building this Fortress Europe, especially after Sept. 11, and the walls have become higher and higher."

The Commission is planning other reforms over the next few weeks, including a relocation policy, whereby refugees who land on the shores of Europe's Mediterranean countries would be transferred to other E.U. member states. In theory, the measures could make the E.U. a secure haven for refugees from the world's trouble spots. But nervous European governments will have to open their doors far wider if they want to staunch the perilous Mediterranean crossings that thousands make every year.