European Union leaders unveiled a plan Wednesday to directly accept at least 50,000 migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, a move that officials say will discourage immigrants from attempting a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
The new resettlement program aims to ease pressure on European states on the Mediterranean coast such as Greece and Italy, which have borne the brunt of the wave of refugees and economic migrants that hit Europe starting in 2015.
Enticed by the EU’s generous immigration policies, thousands of migrants have crowded into boats setting off from Turkey and the North African coast, with the goal of claiming asylum in the first European country they reach.
European immigration officials have struggled to relocate those migrants to countries outside the EU. The previous two-year resettlement program, which expired Wednesday, relocated just 29,000 migrants out of a planned 160,000, according to a European Commission news release.
About 37,000 migrants that arrived while the previous plan was in effect have yet to be relocated, and remain lingering in Greece and Italy.
Instead of relocation outside the EU, the new resettlement scheme aims to bring at least 50,000 migrants and refugees to Europe over the next two years. EU officials say the program will remain in place until October 2019, and will build on the now-expired initiative that has already resettled 23,000 migrants within European countries.
The plan will provide a “viable, safe and legal” alternative for migrants that would otherwise pay human traffickers to smuggle them into Europe on boats, EU officials said.
“We need to open real alternatives to taking perilous irregular journeys,” European Union Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference in Brussels, according to AFP.
Most of the 23,000 people resettled in Europe under the previous plan were refugees living in Jordan and Turkey. EU officials said that resettlement of refugees from the Middle East will continue under the new program, but going forward there will be an “increased focus” on “vulnerable persons” from North Africa and the Horn of Africa, specifically the countries of Libya, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia.
The European Commission has set aside 500 million euro — about $588 million USD — for the new initiative.
The resettlement of refugee and economic migrants has been a divisive issue among EU nations since the crisis began in 2015. Smaller Eastern European countries have accused Brussels of foisting migrants on homogeneous member nations that lack the economic capacity to host migrants.
EU officials have threatened legal action against Poland and Hungary, accusing their right-wing governments of refusing to accept EU-mandated refugee quotas.
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