Sweden has received the first refugees under an EU distribution scheme to ease capacity in Italy and Greece. Nineteen Eritreans arrived on Friday. DW takes a look.
On Friday, Sweden received 19 Eritreans - 14 men and five women - marking the first implementation of an EU-wide relocation plan to ease capacity on Italy and Greece, the first entry points into the 28-nation bloc for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Friday's event was "emotionally charged." Five months ago, he said, he "was in Malta in order to assist at a funeral of desperate refugees who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea."
"This first relocation exercise is a small step but a significant one - it is symbolic of a Europe that takes responsibility, that shows solidarity and is capable of meeting the challenges before it," Avramopoulos said at a press conference in Rome.
The EU's migration chief said Friday's event was only the beginning of the relocation scheme, however, and that more countries needed to collaborate with Italian and Greek authorities to relocate "several hundred people" in the coming months.
'Natural to lead the way'
Sweden welcomed the refugees on Friday.
Jonatan Holst, press secretary for Swedish Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson, told DW that Eritreans were chosen as part of the first group to be relocated under the program because of their "high possibility of gaining asylum."
When asked why Sweden was the first country to receive asylum applicants under the program, Holst said that "it feels natural to lead the way" as Stockholm has pushed the EU for a more concrete response to the influx of refugees into the 28-nation bloc.
On Friday, the government also announced new measures for accommodating refugees, with the country engaging in "one of the biggest humanitarian operations in Swedish history."
The measures include providing temporary housing in tents while county administrative boards take inventory of facilities available for accommodation, taking on more teachers to bolster education facilities to meet the needs of minors, and providing financial resources to support unaccompanied children and young people.
"In the past seven days, 8,899 people arrived here. If they continue at this rate, more than 150,000 people will have come" by the end of 2015, Swedish Prime Minister Stephan Lofven told reporters on Friday.
According to the Swedish Migration Agency, more than 73,000 people applied for asylum since the beginning of 2015, with nearly 20 percent of them being unaccompanied minors under the age of 18.
Sweden received 81,301 asylum applications for the entirety of 2014, of which only 9 percent were considered unaccompanied minors.
Eritreans face 'systematic abuse'
Though Eritrea does not have an active violent conflict, Eritreans submitted more EU asylum applications in the second quarter of 2015 than citizens of any other African country, according to Eurostat's quarterly report.
In June, the United Nations reported "gross human rights violations" by Eritrea's government as a central reason for the mass displacement.
"The government of Eritrea is responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that have created a climate of fear in which dissent is stifled, a large proportion of the population is subjected to forced labor and imprisonment, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country," the UN Commission of Inquiry found.
Swedish-Eritrean human rights activist Meron Estefanos displays the scars of an young Eritrean subjected to abuse
On Friday, UN Refugee Agency communications chief Melissa Fleming called the relocation program a positive move, but said EU states needed to do more for displaced people.
"The relocations are an important step toward stabilizing the refugee crisis in Europe," Fleming told reporters at a press briefing. "However, more needs to be done. The relocation plan can only work if, at entry points in Europe, robust facilities are created to receive, assist, register and screen asylum-seekers and migrants."
Fleming also announced the latest figures for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, putting the number at 526,797 thus far in 2015, up from about 219,000 for all of 2014.
"The relocation plan, although limited compared with the present needs, will hopefully contribute to managing the refugee flow into Europe through solidarity among EU member states," Fleming said.
In September, interior ministers of EU member states voted in favor of a quota system that would relocate about 120,000 asylum applicants from Italy and Greece to other European states. The proposal was heavily criticized by several countries that voted against it, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary.