The European Commission proposed easing the impact of the Mediterranean migration crisis on Italy and Greece by moving 40,000 refugees to countries further north.
The proposal looked set to trigger a fight among European Union governments over the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and northern Africa. Many northern and eastern European countries are uneasy with quotas and Britain has shunned them altogether.
“Some member states were reluctant, but they have to accept it’s not about words, it’s about action,” the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told reporters on Wednesday in Brussels.
Syria’s civil war and Libya’s chaos have driven migration to Europe to levels not seen since the early 1990s after the fall of communism. European governments took in 185,000 asylum seekers in 2014, an increase of almost 50 percent from 2013.
Italy and Greece are the first port of call for thousands who make their way across the Mediterranean Sea, often loaded onto rickety boats by human-trafficking gangs operating out of Libya.
“Why only Italy and Greece?” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said. “Right now, they are under heavy pressure.” He said other countries facing future refugee emergencies would benefit from the same arrangements.
The commission, which supervises common EU policies, proposed a budget of 6,000 euros ($6,500) per refugee to pay for relocation and housing. The proposals, initially limited to Syrians and Eritreans for two years, require approval by the 28 EU governments.
While decisions to grant asylum rest with each government, shipping back rejected applicants often proves to be fraught. National reactions reflected the unpopularity of quotas. Lithuania, for example, regards being assigned 500 refugees as “surreal,” Internal Affairs Minister Saulius Skvernelis told reporters in Vilnius. “At our full capacity, all we can take in is 40 to 50.”
Britain, caught up in a national debate over immigration, has said it will make use of its special EU status to boycott the system. Ireland and Denmark are also exempt.
Britain has been more supportive of a possible military mission to take smugglers’ boats out of action, which could be started next month. On Wednesday, the EU also confirmed plans to step up naval patrols under Operation Triton in the Mediterranean during the summer.