Brussels, Belgium, Sep 28 – The EU said Wednesday it hoped to relocate 30,000 refugees from Greece by the end of next year, insisting it was making “significant progress” on tackling the migrant crisis.
A deal with Turkey to cut the flow of migrants to the Greek islands is also proving successful, said an assessment by the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc.
But despite their hopes for refugees in Greece, European Union nations look set to fall well short of their overall plan agreed a year ago to share 160,000 migrants around the bloc.
“We have come a long way,” Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said as he released reports on several key areas of the crisis. “We have made significant progress as a union but we have more work ahead of us.”
Europe has faced its biggest migration crisis since World War II with well over one million refugees and migrants arriving on its shores in the past year as they flee war in Syria and the Middle East, and poverty in Africa.
In September 2015 the EU agreed controversial mandatory quotas to relocate 160,000 people from overwhelmed Greece and Italy, the two countries most heavily affected by the crisis, to other countries.
Hungary is having a referendum on whether to accept the quotas, which have angered several eastern and central European states, even as Germany has taken in a million asylum seekers.
The European Commission insisted there had been “important progress” despite so far only 5,651 refugees having been moved from Greece and Italy during the past year.
It said it was speeding up relocations with 1,202 in September alone, twice the previous biggest monthly total.
– ‘Dramatic’ fall in arrivals –
“With the increased capacity of the Greek Asylum Service, and if member states step up their efforts, it should notably be possible to relocate the remaining relocation candidates present in Greece (around 30,000) within the next year,” the commission said in a report.
Greece is accommodating over 60,000 refugees and migrants stuck in the country after a succession of Balkan and EU states shut their borders earlier this year.
Only half would be eligible for relocation under the EU plan which caters for Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans.
The EU said the deal with Turkey signed earlier this year had “dramatically” reduced the flow of migrants over the Aegean Sea to Greece, despite the instability from a coup attempt in Turkey in July.
“Despite challenging circumstances this summer, the settlement has continued to work and remains our number one priority,” Avramopoulos told a news conference in Brussels.
Eighty-five people have been arriving a day on average in the Greek islands since June, compared to 1,700 per day in March and 7,000 per day in October 2015, the commission said.
But Avramopoulos said Turkey had yet to fulfil the criteria to achieve its most sought after element of the deal: visa-free travel to the EU, although Brussels was working with Ankara to achieve it.
Emergency border checks introduced in the EU’s supposedly passport-free Schengen Area by five countries amid the migration crisis are allowed to continue for now.
But the EU will only decide on whether or not to approve a new six-month extension in November.
The EU has said it plans to restore Schengen to full borderless status by the end of the year.
“Our objective remains to lift all border controls,” Avramopoulos said.