World

Q&A: Great fanfare for relocation of tiny batch of refugees hides huge EU shortcomings

Again, top government and European Union officials were on hand Wednesday for the departure of a tiny batch of refugees from a southern EU nation to the heartland of the continent where they will likely be granted asylum.

Last month small groups of Eritreans were sent from Italy to Sweden and Finland and on Wednesday 30 people from Syria and Iraq were sent from Greece to Luxembourg.

The transfers are part of the EU's new relocation plan that aims to move refugees from EU countries on the front line of the migration crisis to other member states. But while solutions are discussed in terms of dozens, the problems facing the 28-nation bloc in dealing with the migrant crisis come in the hundreds of thousands.

Here are some questions and answers about the issues surrounding the relocation program:

WHAT WAS AGREED AND WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?

In September, member nations agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and elsewhere. By Wednesday, 14 member states had made 1,418 places available to receive them.

So far, 86 of a planned 39,600 refugees have been relocated from Italy and 30 out of 66,400 from Greece.

The Frontex border agency last month asked for 775 extra border guards to streamline the processing of migrants. So far, they have received pledges for 352 which is less than half. All that from a union that counts 508 million people.

When Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia asked for help to deal with the flow of tens of thousands of people, the EU said this week that "so far, too few member states have responded to these calls." Contributions so far include things like extension cords and winterized tents.

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WHY IS SO LITTLE DONE?

The arrival of over 700,000 people to the EU this year came at a time when anti-foreigner feelings had already been on the rise for years in many countries. This made many governments reluctant to voice too much enthusiasm about welcoming migrants, fearing a political backlash among their publics. Several EU nations have also been angry with Germany for what they see as encouragement to people to seek shelter on the continent. A country like Greece has seen more than half a million arrive, but since it has been staving off bankruptcy for over a year it has not had the funds nor the attention that the crisis deserves.

And even if EU institutions have been warning member states and making insistent calls for help, the decision-making powers are in the hands of the nations, not in Brussels.

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WHY IS RELOCATION SO SLOW?

Nothing about this refugee emergency is easy. For relocation to work, EU border and asylum experts must work out whether a person has a high probability of being granted refugee status before accepting them into the quota scheme. Many people arrive without travel documents, so it takes time to establish where they're from and if they are fleeing conflict or persecution. The expert 'hotspots' processing centers where this is planned to be done have only officially been up and running for a few weeks. Employees have to be found, hired and deployed, and protocols worked out which allow the experts to work smoothly with national officials in Italy and Greece.

"We have full realization that this is just a start, that 30 people compared to thousands who have fled is just a drop in the ocean," said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. "But we aim to make this drop a stream."

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HOW TO MOVE FROM LIP SERVICE TO ACTION?

EU institutions have been trying to drag member nations into more action for months now. At a summit with African nations in Malta next week, the EU will have its sixth meeting of government leaders on the issue so far this year. In a letter to government leaders last Friday, three top EU officials made it clear. "Above all, we must implement what we have said we will do," adding that "we are still falling short." It has become a very undiplomatic exercise to "name and shame" nations who have been slow to act. It is also why seemingly insignificant events like Wednesday's relocation transfer are seized on to keep it at the heart of the political debate.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.