The first group of refugees to be moved under an EU relocation scheme has flown out of Italy, bound for Sweden.
The 19 Eritrean nationals boarded a plane in Rome. EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Italy’s interior minister were at the airport to see their departure.
When pressed on what would happen to refugees who refuse to go to a particular country, the commissioner was clear.
“Relocation is not based on where someone wants to go. It will be up to us to tell them where they will be relocated,” said Avramopoulos.
“And if they don’t wish to do so, unfortunately they must know, they must take back their way (make their way back) to their home.”
The EU plans to relocate a total of 160-thousand refugees from Greece and Italy over two years. Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis currently qualify for the scheme.
“This relocation scheme is a really important step towards stabilising the refugee crisis in Europe,” said Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“It can only work if it takes place at the entry points of Europe – and it can only work if robust facilities are created above and beyond what we have in Italy.”
Avramopoulos also visited an immigration centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The so-called “hot spot” is to be jointly run by EU and Italian officials to screen migrants.
More than have a million people have poured into Europe this year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa – prompting bitter disputes between member states about how to act and share out the responsibility.