Eritrean refugees wave as they board an Italian Financial police aircraft which will take them to Sweden, at Rome's Ciampino airport, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. The aircraft, carrying 19 Eritreans, brings the first refugees to Sweden under the European Union's new resettlement program aimed at redistributing asylum-seekers from hard-hit receiving countries. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME: A small group of Eritreans left Italy for Sweden yesterday, the first contingent of asylum seekers to be relocated under a much-contested European Union scheme to ease the burden of the migration crisis on frontline countries. Grinning shyly before the media, 19 young Eritreans-five women and 14 men-waved and blew kisses as they boarded a small propeller plane at Rome’s Ciampino airport after hugging members of the Red Cross and UN Refugee agency goodbye.

“Today is an important day for the European Union, it is a day of victory… for those who believe in Europe, for those who believed in saving human lives,” Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told journalists after the departure. “It is a defeat for those who claim it is better for the Mediterranean to become a lake of death… and believe that scaring the European people is the way forward,” he added.

The scheme follows months of tensions over the more than 600,000 people who have flooded into Europe this year. EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the EU presidency, were in Rome to launch the relocation of 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other member states in the 28-nation bloc over the next two years.

Baby drowns off Greece
The plan, which hopes to help ease the bloc’s worst migration crisis since World War II, was only given the green light after Brussels flatly overruled stiff opposition from Eastern European nations. “This is a tangible example of what we can do when we work together. We are nations of immigrants and we’ve made an important step forwards,” Avramopoulos said, adding that it showed “Italy is not alone”.

Alfano said Italy was ready to relocate 100 more asylum seekers who would go to Germany and the Netherlands, and the UNHCR said further relocations would take place from Italy at the beginning of next week. “This is a significant day, a positive and important one,” the UN refugee agency’s southern Europe spokeswoman, Carlotta Sami, told AFP. “But we know more must be done.

There is a great need for measures to be put in place to allow (asylum seekers) to arrive in Europe safely,” she said, referring to perilous boat crossings in the Mediterranean which have cost over 3,000 people their lives this year alone as many flee wars and persecution. A baby thought to be about a year old was the latest victim, drowning off the Greek island of Lesbos during the night when a dinghy carrying about 55 Syrians from Turkey began sinking in the dark, Greece’s ministry of shipping said yesterday.

Rush to beat the weather
A UN report in June detailed how Eritrea, under Isaias Afwerki’s iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested on a whim, detained, tortured, killed or disappeared. Despite the fanfare for a fresh start for these Eritreans, critics questioned how much of a difference the scheme would make if such a low number of asylum seekers are transferred at a time, while arrival numbers increase.

The International Organization for Migration said yesterday that there had been a sharp increase in the number of migrants arriving in Greece, to some 7,000 a day, up from 4,500 per day at the end of September. Spokesman Joel Millman said it appeared the rush “may be due to expected worsening weather conditions”.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the scheme would have “a slow start, but it should accelerate”, adding that the agency hoped departures would soon begin from Greece as well. The Eritreans relocated yesterday had been rescued on the high seas over the past few weeks and taken to an experimental migrant screening centre or “hotspot” on Lampedusa Island, where they were registered.

Avramopoulos and Asselborn were expected to travel to the Italian island later yesterday to visit the centre, a prototype for several set to open at the end of November across Italy and Greece. On Thursday, EU nations agreed to speed up the deportation of failed asylum seekers and crack down on so-called “economic migrants”-who are largely from poor African nations and not refugees from conflict zones.

The EU hopes the closed centers will sharply reducing the number of people who arrive by boat, refuse to be identified and head off across the borders to other bloc countries to seek a new life. The centers and relocations are part of a multi-point EU plan which includes a military anti-people trafficker operation.

The UN’s Security Council is set to vote yesterday on a draft resolution to authorize military action against smugglers under the bloc’s Operation Sophia, which launched this week to seize traffickers’ boats in international waters. While the vote is not necessary for the EU to take action, the measure would legitimize plans under which European naval forces are tasked with boarding, inspecting and confiscating ships and even disposing of those used by migrant smugglers. – AFP