Today @ 17:27 CET
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Confronted with the issue of increasing numbers of irregular migrants attempting to arrive on Europe's shores, the European Commission on Wednesday proposed a scheme to co-ordinate across the bloc the resettlement of refugees from countries beyond the EU.
The EU executive hopes that the new scheme, the "Joint EU Resettlement Programme", in letting in more refugees that it chooses itself, will ease the flows of migrants trying to sneak into Europe outside the normal immigration channels.
Currently, just ten EU member states have refugee resettlement programmes, in which they are transferred from a first country of asylum - often a developing country neighbouring a conflict zone - to the EU nation, where they will be able to start a new life and find permanent protection.
The rest of the bloc however carry out resettlement more on an ad-hoc basis, and almost no co-ordination between member states takes place.
With the new programme, the commission hopes to see more practical co-operation within the EU on the matter.
Specifically, the mechanism would see an annual setting of priorities for resettlement, meaning one year perhaps the emphasis would be on Iraqi refugees that have fled to Syria, while another year, it could be refugees from Sudanese refugees from Kenya, or perhaps vulnerable single women.
Additionally, the identification of refugees to to be resettled and the logistics of their reception - medical screening, orientation programmes and visa arrangements - would be carried out by EU member states together with support from a new agency, the European Asylum Support Office, that would be established next year.
All the while, all of the new moves would only be done on a voluntary basis. Member states who decide not to participate would be free to go their own way, and all countries would still be free to choose how many refugees they wish to resettle.
The commission would also establish a "Resettlement Expert Group", in which all EU countries would participate, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration and NGOs already active in resettlement. The expert group would prepare for the identification of common annual EU resettlement priorities.
EU countries that then agree to resettle refugees according to the common annual priorities would receive additional financial assistance of €4.000 per person from the European Refugee Fund.
In 2010, according to the UNHCR, there will be 10 million refugees worldwide, of which some 203,000 will need resettlement. In 2008, countries offered to resettle just 65,000 refugees, and European Union members were particularly unenthusiastic in its efforts in this regard, resettling 4,378, or 6.7 percent.
Refugee advocates gave the news a cautious welcome. The European Council on Refugees and exiles described the proposal as "a good first step towards a fully-fledged European resettlement programme, which should ultimately lead to an increase of resettlement places in Europe."
However, the NGO is anxious that any decision by the EU to pick and choose which refugees it wants from near conflict zones should not mean that the bloc abandons those who just land on its doorstep, with a more co-ordinated resettlement programme on the one hand matched by a re-inforcement of what critics describe as "Fortress Europe" on the other.
"Resettlement of refugees struggling to survive in camps outside Europe is not and should never be seen as a potential substitute for states' obligations under international and European law to consider applications for asylum of those people in need of protection who arrive to our territory," said ECRE secretary-general Bjarte Vandvik.
"A European Resettlement Programme should not be used to legitimise a more restrictive approach towards such applications nor to justify measures such as stronger border controls and a tighter EU visa-scheme that might prevent refugees from achieving a safe haven in an EU member state," he added.