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BRUSSELS – The European Union forged ahead Wednesday with a controversial plan to introduce refugee quotas to ease pressure on countries battling the migrant influx, despite strong opposition to the scheme.
The EU's executive Commission sees the quota plan as key to forcing the EU countries to show solidarity with frontline partners like Italy, Greece and Malta. Only five countries handled almost two-thirds of EU asylum applications last year. Under special agreements, Britain, Ireland and Denmark would not be obliged to take part in the scheme.
Some countries, including Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia, have already rejected the quota plan, meaning the scheme is unlikely to pass. It would see maximum refugee levels set for each country based on population, GDP and employment levels.
British interior minister Theresa May said her country would take no part as it would only encourage more people to make the dangerous sea crossing and risk their lives.
"We cannot do anything which encourages more people to make these perilous journeys -- or which makes it easier for the gangs responsible for their misery. That is why the U.K. will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation," May wrote in The Times of London.
But Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said that "what will make the situation worse is doing nothing," and he expressed hope that the British government would carefully study the migration agenda for tackling the problem the Commission unveiled Wednesday.
"If we do adopt these measures comprehensively," he told reporters, "I wonder how anyone can maintain that this would make the situation worse."
Italy's interior minister, Angelino Alfano, welcomed the quota scheme.
"The Dublin 'wall' could fall if we reach approval of obligatory quotas for migrants that each country must take in," he said on state-run RAI radio, referring to the EU's so-called Dublin system of laws that notably dictate that asylum-seekers must be processed in the country where they first land.
Officials from Malta also support the plan, which would evolve from a "temporary distribution mechanism" that the EU will propose within two weeks as an emergency step to share out refugees wherever there is a mass influx.
"We have called for a fair system of distribution of beneficiaries of international protection, once a certain threshold has been reached, from those member states under the most pressure, and as the Commission has recognized this should happen sooner rather than later," said Maltese EU lawmaker Roberta Metsola, a lead member of the European Parliament on migration.
Germany has taken the most refugees in Europe from Syria, and a top immigration official in Berlin expressed regret that some EU nations are opposed to the quota scheme.
"The answer to rising refugee numbers cannot be to reject a common asylum policy for fear of strengthening populists," the official, Aydan Ozoguz, said in a statement.
"Refugees and immigration are core EU issues; every EU member state has a legal and moral obligation to make its contribution."
Meanwhile, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on Europe to take in more migrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq, saying his own country has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis and has been sheltering some 2 million people.