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EU leaders approve voluntary plan to resettle migrants

European leaders have agreed on a voluntary scheme to share refugees after a heated debate on the Mediterranean migrant crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for more solidarity among member states.

After seven hours of debate over the thorny issue of where migrants to the EU should live, the European Union leaders finally agreed Friday morning on a voluntary scheme that would see the EU's member states taking in migrants who cross into the bloc on the Mediterranean Sea.

While agreeing to the resettlement plan in principle, leaders were not able to work out many details for the new process.

People fleeing war and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East are seeking refuge in European countries, with most of the people turning up on the shores of Italy and Greece or being rescued at sea. Some 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers are currently camped in Italy and Greece, whereas another 20,000 are outside the EU.

A record number of 60 million people fled their homes

in the conflict zones last year, according to the United Nations. At least half of them are children. Some 80,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year.

The European Commission had pushed for a mandatory quota system to divide migrants among EU states, but in a heated discussion on Thursday, many European leaders rejected the idea.

"It was a very intensive debate," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting. She called the migrant crisis "the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor."

Merkel demanded more effort and solidarity from EU countries when dealing with the crisis. Current rules call for the country where migrants enter the EU to determine whether they are permitted to remain in the 28-member bloc.

Voluntary or obligatory?

"I am in favor of a quota, I am in favor of an obligation, I am in favor of a common asylum policy," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said on Thursday ahead of the summit.

But Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the nations could not be forced to share the burden of the incoming refugees. She said she favored a voluntary system, which she called an "honorable" way to treat migrants.

According to Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, richer EU nations should take in more refugees than the poorer states. "The share of the burden should be fair," he said.

European Commission plans for deciding how many migrants a country would take did take many factors into account, including a nation's economic situation.

Expressing his frustration at the outcome of the conference, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said there was an urgent need to find a mechanism to help the migrants. "It doesn't matter if it is voluntary or mandatory; it is whether it can help 60,000 refugees," Juncker told media in the early hours of Friday.

Sharing the load

Front-line states such as Italy, Greece and Malta have long argued that their EU peers should share responsibility for accommodating and processing migrants. Tensions erupted in the past two weeks on the border between Italy and France, where hundreds of refugees were blocked from crossing to the French side.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi

lashed out at the EU over its response to the migrant crisis

during the summit.

"If that's your idea of Europe, you can keep it," Renzi told the conference participants. "Either give us solidarity or don't waste our time."

A record of some 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014, with Eritrea, Somalia and Syria among the countries from which most refugees came. More than 100,000 have already made the perilous journey this year, while about 2,000 have died or are missing.

The EU has been looking for UN support to take action against the smugglers, who have profited from the turmoil within Libya, where most of the migrants begin their sea journey. Intervention has been made more difficult by the fact that two governments are vying for power in the country.

More migrants arrive in Italy

As EU leaders haggled in Brussels, more refugees landed in Italy on Friday. A Swedish navy ship brought 497 migrants - mostly from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan - to the Italian port city of Catania after they were rescued in the waters south of Sicily.

According to the captain of the ship, the migrants were at sea "for 10 or 12 days, and they hadn't had any food or water. Several of them were quite dehydrated."

shs/sms (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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