Call for refugee quotas for EU members

FRANKFURT - Germany and Austria are pushing for urgent changes to the way the European Union distributes asylum-seekers among member states, saying the burden of hosting refugees is not equitably shared under current rules.

Both are calling for a quota system for the 28-state EU to redress the current burden of settling asylum-seekers in a small number of states.

According to EU's statistics agency Eurostat, six EU states accounted for more than three-quarters of asylum seeker applications last year, with Germany at the top of the list.

The call for a quota system comes as the EU faces a growing crisis, with thousands of migrants from conflict-ridden nations in Africa and the Middle East fleeing to the safety of Europe every week.

Front-line states, including Italy, Greece and Malta are being overwhelmed as desperate migrants use rickety boats to try to cross the Mediterranean in what has become a deadly race to reach a better life.

The influx of refugees, many coming from countries where Islam is the main religion, has also been a political lightning rod by disenchanted citizens and right-wing extremists.

Faced with growing anti-immigrant sentiment, many European governments have been reluctant to deal with what has become a very sensitive issue.

Germany's Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has staged street demonstrations to fight what they perceived as the "Islamisation" of the West, prompting condemnation from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Europe, though, can no longer ignore the crisis as rising numbers of asylum-seekers head for its shores.

Last weekend, nearly 7,000 people were rescued off Libya's coast by the Italian and French navy boats, tugs and other commercial vessels. Dozens died, aid groups said.

Last month, about 800 migrants died when their boat sank near the Libyan coast, galvanising EU states to ramp up search and rescue missions, particularly as warmer weather is expected to spur thousands more migrants to make hazardous voyages.

EU Commissioners are expected to meet on May 13 to unveil a new plan on managing the migrant influx. A quota system could be one of them and could replace present rules, called the "Dublin Regulation".

"We have right now in the EU what I believe to be a completely absurd Dublin Regulation," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday.

He told Parliament the following day the distribution system should be based on factors such as population size.

Mr Faymann's views echoed Dr Merkel's, who said last month that the Dublin rules were not working. The rules require a refugee to apply to stay in the country of first arrival.

This is designed to prevent asylum-shopping in which a refugee lodges a claim in a particular country after passing through one or more other nations.

Italy has long been critical of the rules, while human rights groups have asked the EU to scrap them because they are used by states to deport refugees back to Italy and other coastal states where refugee transit facilities are deplorable.

Mr Faymann said the Dublin rules "would mean that Malta, Italy and Greece will have to take in all the Mediterranean refugees, something which they cannot do".

"Therefore, these countries are giving currently the refugees who have arrived travel tickets to Vienna, Munich or Berlin.

I want to achieve a swift EU-wide rule that all 28 countries will declare their willingness to accept refugees based on the number of population - there should be a refugee quota for every state," he said.

Britain and Hungary are expected to oppose any quota plan. Britain adopts a tough line on immigrants and has argued that the EU's search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean is a "pull" factor that only encourages more migrants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last Friday EU states should be allowed to set their own rules on migrants and that Hungary did not want any of them.

Mr Steffen Angenendt, a refugee expert at the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs, said various proposals for a distribution formula have popped up in the past.

"The EU is moving slowly towards a consensus on that," he said. "The idea of burden-sharing in Europe is right now not a sexy idea."

EU President Jean-Claude Juncker has backed Dr Merkel, without specifically referring to her proposal.

"We need to have a distribution of refugees in all of Europe," he told the EU Parliament on April 29.

The Parliament later that day approved a resolution calling for a binding quota for distributing refugees, bigger contributions to resettlement programmes, better co-operation with third countries and tougher measures against people smugglers.

While the resolution, passed by 449 votes to 130, with 93 abstentions, does not have the force of a law, it gives the EU Commission the political backing to launch a more effective plan to manage migration.

Germany allocates refugees within its 16 regional states based on two criteria: tax income gets two-thirds of the ratio, while population size is one-third.

But Mr Angenendt, who has been advising some government agencies on refugee issues, says two other factors should be weighted: unemployment rate and geographical size.

With conflicts in Syria and Iraq getting front-page treatment in local media, Germans have generally been sympathetic to the plight of refugees, despite the rise of Pegida.

This article was first published on May 07, 2015.
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