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EU relocations: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Relocating refugees from Italy and Greece has proven to be a difficult process in the past two years. When implemented correctly, however, the EU scheme promises lasting solutions for migrants in Europe.

Relocations of refugees under EU guidelines have proven to be anything but straight-forward procedures. In many instances, they have turned into bureaucratic minefields slowing down the pace of agreed relocations from the two major arrival countries, Greece and Italy, while fostering major disagreement across the EU member states.

But the relocation quotas set out in the two Council Decisions on relocation in September 2015, are legally binding regardless of whatever differences member states may have, firmly establishing that "Member States (are) committed to relocate 160,000 people from Italy and Greece (and if relevant from other Member States) by September 2017," according to the European Commission.

The most recent European Commission report on relocation and resettlement of migrants coming to Europe, however, highlights a series of findings that shed light on both successful partnerships among EU member states and severe differences that continue to impede progress.

Italy vs. Greece

The overall pace of relocation from Greece and Italy appears to significantly have gained momentum, with more than 10,000 individuals being relocated across the bloc since the beginning of the year. While this number marks a fivefold increase compared to corresponding numbers reported one year earlier, it still falls somewhat short of agreed targets.

"The pace of relocation continues presenting a positive trend. Additional efforts from all Member States of relocation would allow reaching the targets set by the Commission," the report states.

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While relocations from Greece seem to approach a certain level of automation and are set to reach targets (with some additional help pledged by the EU recently), procedures in Italy are still lagging behind on several levels. The report states that "more efforts by Italy are needed to identify and register for relocation all those present in Italy and rapidly channel to relocation new eligible arrivals."

In concrete terms, the document highlights the need for improvement for Italy in certain organizational areas, including a more centralized approach for the relocation scheme. With refugees in Italy - many of whom come from Eritrea - being housed all over the country, a unified approach towards relocation is needed to speed up the process, the report finds.

The document also implies that Italy needs to give preference to the processing of migrants who are eligible for relocation over those who likely are not eligible for permanent refugee status in the European Union, suggesting that the majority of the country's resources at present are currently being focused on processing those who weren't eligible.

Not playing by the rules

A major part of the problem in successfully processing the tens of thousands of refugees entitled to relocation appears to lie in the reluctance of certain EU nations to accept them in the first place. The report shows varying degrees of lacking cooperation on part of some EU states, touching on issues from national preferences in the kind of refugees that are welcomed to outright refusal to comply with the implementation of the directives.

"While most of the Member States are now contributing fairly and proportionally to the implementation of the scheme, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in breach of their legal obligations are neither pledging nor relocating from Greece and Italy," the document states.

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Another country in focus for its apparent lack of compliance is Slovakia, which the report says "with its policy of strict preferences (is) leading to disproportionately high rejection rates." Slovakia is currently implementing a policy of only accepting single mothers with children and people with full travel documents, which the EU says is "not in conformity with the Council Decisions on relocations."

Legal repercussions

The rejections of these cases of relocation may have serious consequences for those EU member states in question, as legal measures are now underway to deal with their averseness to cooperate in the relocation process:

"Hungary and Slovakia, supported by Poland, have challenged the legality of the second Council Decision on relocation. However, an annulment action does not have suspensive effect. The hearing of the cases before the Court of Justice of the European Union took place on 10 May." The cases may eventually end up in the European Court of Justice if no prior action is taken by the member states accused of neglecting their obligations under the EU Decision.

refugees on dinghy (picture alliance/dpa/G. Fischer)

With most refugees embarking on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to get to Europe, Italy and Greece have been on the forefront of the refugee crisis

The report also mentions reluctance on part of Bulgaria to house any refugees from Eritrea - who presently make up the majority of arrivals in Italy. The European Commission condemns this practice, saying that Bulgaria's and Slovakia's selective methods mean that hardly any refugees from Italy can be relocated to those two nations. The body says it is committed to continuing to monitor these two countries, which might also face proceedings for infringement if they don't fall in line with the EU Decision.

The report also said that in the past three months, Cyprus, Latvia and France had failed to pledge accepting relocations for Italy, and that Austria had failed to carry out any relocations to date, but was committed to changing this immediately and retroactively.

Good overall progress

The European Commission report nevertheless paints an optimistic picture, saying that "(g)iven current numbers in Greece and Italy, relocation of all those anticipated to be eligible is possible and feasible by September 2017" if all member states live up to their legal obligations.

It also highlights that certain countries have had to overcome considerable hurdles to implement the relocation scheme, with the report also emphasizing that "the relocation scheme (is) an essential expression of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility towards Greece and Italy."

The document stressed that Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal in particular have all managed to speed up their processes are "well on track to fulfill their obligations," underscoring also the fact that Finland, Portugal and Ireland in particular have put in considerable efforts to solve their prior difficulties with their respective reception capacity limitations.

Call for 'urgent' action

Taking all things into consideration, the European Commission made a number of recommendations as part of a call for urgent action to be taken.

These include an appeal for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Austria to start fulfilling their legal obligations, and for Slovakia to drop its preferential treatment towards refugees the country arbitrarily deems to be desirable.

Another report is expected to be published before the end of the two-year period in September 2017, at which point the European Commission hopes it will be able to take stock of the past two years to draw lessons for the future.

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