First refugees fly from Italy to Sweden under EU relocation scheme


A plane from Italy carrying 19 Eritreans – five women and 14 men – landed in Sweden on Friday, marking the start of an EU scheme for the redistribution of an overall 160,000 asylum seekers across the bloc.

“This plane represents … the victory of a Europe that knows how to show solidarity and responsibility,” said Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

The Swedish Migration Agency said the plane landed shortly after 4:30 pm (1430 GMT) at Lulea airport in northern Sweden.

A spokeswoman told dpa the 19 Eritreans were then to be taken by bus to a reception centre in nearby Boden, where they will be registered and spend the night.

They will then be taken to a reception centre in the central region of Jamtland, pending processing of their asylum applications.

Oskar Ekblad, head of the Swedish Migration Agency’s resettlement programme, earlier said the project would be closely evaluated with Italian authorities.

The Italian interior minister noted that two years earlier, more than 800 migrants had died in the Mediterranean Sea sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa. At the time, Italy had been left alone to face “a huge tragedy without equal,” Alfano said.

The group of Eritreans who arrived in Sweden also entered Europe via Lampedusa.

Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the largest movement of migrants and asylum seekers seen in Europe since World War II. Many are fleeing from war-torn countries such as Syria and are entitled to international protection.

The arrivals also include Eritrean nationals, most of whom qualify for asylum in Europe due to the eastern African country’s repressive military government.

The influx has stretched resources in Greece and Italy, who have struggled to control the arrivals, leaving many people to continue freely towards affluent EU states such as Germany, in the hope of requesting asylum there.

To help bring the issue under control, member states decided to redistribute an overall 160,000 asylum seekers across the European Union. Sweden was the first country to pledge spots under the scheme.

“It’s only 19 persons, but it is a symbol that Europe can face this problem together,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said in Rome, referring to Friday’s departures. His country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

In the coming weeks, a further 100 asylum seekers will leave Italy for countries including Germany and the Netherlands, Alfano said. Under the scheme, the new host countries will process requests for refugee status.

Critics have questioned whether the scheme will work, as most migrants want to reach a handful of EU countries and are reluctant to stay in others.

But EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said asylum seekers must go to the country they are allocated. “Relocation is not based on where someone wants to go … they have to respect the rules,” he said.

The officials were due later Friday to travel to Lampedusa and visit a so-called “hotspot” – a beefed-up migrant reception centre designed to register and screen all incoming boat migrants.

From there, they will head to Athens for talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and local authorities on the roll-out of hotspots in Greece.

The first relocation of asylum seekers from Greece is expected to take place within the next two weeks, Avramopoulos said.

Rome and Athens have been accused of dragging their feet on establishing the hotspot centres, which are intended in part to help separate those with legitimate grounds for asylum from economic migrants, who are to be repatriated.

Earlier Friday, the Greek coastguard found a body of a small child in a vessel transporting refugees from the Turkish coast to the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos.

The child had died under unclear circumstances on the crossing with 56 other people aboard, the state radio reported. The remaining refugees all survived.

As of Friday, more than 580,000 people had reached southern Europe by sea this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Almost 3,000 had died in attempted sea crossings.