Hopes are wavering on the first anniversary of the European Union’s (EU) relocation programme which was established last September 2015. After one full year of hesitant implementation, only 5,000 of the 160,000 eligible persons in need of international protection in Greece and Italy have been relocated to other EU Member States.
What was envisioned to be a durable solution for tens of thousands of stranded refugees and a fair way to relieve pressure on the Italian and Greek reception systems, is today being commonly characterized as a failure, at best. Opponents of the scheme are ever more fervent in questioning not only its viability but the very basis of its existence, while those in favour are scrambling for ways to salvage the programme and get it on better footing.
The challenges to the scheme are there for sure. EU Member States need to speed up the number of relocations, increase their pledges, accelerate the processing of relocation candidates, and ensure that the most vulnerable people now in Greece and Italy, such as unaccompanied minors and medical cases, receive fair consideration and assistance while they await a relocation decision.
But not all the news is negative. In September 2016 alone, IOM has helped to relocate more than 1,340 persons from Greece and Italy to participating Member States, totalling more than 25 percent of the overall progress since the scheme started. While pledges remain low at 10,904, almost 80 percent for Greece, they are slowly picking up. Almost all European states, including Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, have made pledges, providing a real opportunity for each of them to scale up the pledges and speed up the implementation.
Beneficiaries are also signing up for the programme in greater numbers, feeling more confident that this is indeed the best way to end the limbo they find themselves in.
Successful relocation is vital if we want to tackle the overcrowding in accommodation centers in Greece and Italy, reduce tensions between communities, migrants and refugees in hotspots and on islands, and ensure that people do not disappear from the map and resort to dangerous new routes or smugglers. Europe has been clamouring for a reduction in irregular migration, and EU relocation has already proven that an organized, safe and legal way is the response we should further build upon.
EU Relocation is about people and needs a shared European response. It is about protecting fellow humans in peril and standing up for shared European and international values.
As the one-year mark coincided with the UN Secretary General’s high level summit on addressing large scale movements of refugees and migrants, IOM’s Director General Swing has called on all EU Member States to step up and fully meet their commitments under the EU relocation programme.
After one year it is clear that not enough has been done, but recent momentum should be capitalized on to intensify and speed up the scheme. The public, civil society, international organizations and the EU institutions should continue to urge EU Member States to multiply efforts and provide the necessary pledges.
IOM will continue to provide support to the Greek and Italian government in speeding up the processing and transfer of relocation candidates and welcome the acceleration of pledges and processing from the member States of Relocation.
In a time of rising discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia, it will be important to continue to build in-country and bottom-up support for relocation before and long after beneficiaries have arrived in country.
Everyone should be given a chance at meaningful integration and restarting their lives with new jobs and an education. Refugees and migrants are not only resilient and resourceful, research has amply shown that they contribute to their new societies, bring innovation and create new markets and economic opportunities. Europe should take the high road and lead with this longer term vision.
Beyond all the challenges and doubts, the numbers and quotas, we should not forget that at the end of the day relocation is about one person and one family at a time being given a chance to embark on a better future, with opportunities for their children to attend school and pick up the thread of a normal life. Relocation matters for each and every one of the 5,240 beneficiaries to date who have had the opportunity to start again.
Let’s keep this in mind in the second year and try to anticipate what history might say about an EU programme that brought its states together in solidarity to successfully relocate all those stranded people in need.
Jo De Backer is the EU relocation and resettlement focal point for the IOM Regional Office for the EU, Norway and Switzerland