On 4 November 2015, Jean Asselborn, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Minister of Immigration and Asylum of Luxembourg, went to Athens with Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, to meet the first 30 asylum seekers to benefit from the relocation mechanism from Greece agreed by European ministers in September under the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU.
From Athens airport, together with the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, and the Delegate Greek Minister for Migration Ioannis Mouzalas, they attended the departure of the first group of asylum candidates to Luxembourg, which will process their asylum application, before speaking to the press.
As a reminder, the Council approved the two-stage emergency relocation from Italy and Greece of a total of 160 000 people seeking international protection, on a proposal from the Commission. The relocation of 40 000 people was unanimously approved at the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) held on 14 September 2015, while the relocation of 120 000 more people was approved by qualified majority during the extraordinary JHA Council of 22 September 2015.
On 9 October 2015 in Rome, Jean Asselborn and Dimitris Avramopoulos had already attended the departure of the first 19 asylum seekers under this mechanism from Italy. So far, two flights have already left Italy, bound for Sweden and Finland, with 86 individuals, of Eritrean and Syrian origin.
'We need to act very fast before it's too late'
During a press conference organised following the departure to Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn expressed his desire for the families hosted to 'have the possibility to start a new life in our country, to live in peace and security, and that one day, should they so wish, to also have the possibility to return to their country'.
The Minister also noted that the Luxembourg Presidency has convened another extraordinary meeting of the JHA Council on 9 November 2015 dedicated to the implementation of the measures agreed in July and September. This visit to Greece was an opportunity to prepare for it with the Greek leaders. For this implementation, 'we need infrastructures, staff and we need to act very fast before it's too late', said the Minister.
'Walls, fences, and barbed wire cannot be the image of Europe in the future' Jean Asselborn continued. 'We need responsibility and solidarity to respond to the difficult challenge of migration, in arrival, transit and destination countries alike', he stated. Jean Asselborn stressed that the relocation of 30 asylum seekers to Luxembourg was only 'a start', but was a 'very important step in terms of the capacity to resolve the migration problem'. 'We need to make changes fast', he concluded, 'if we manage it, solidarity and responsibility will be strong in the EU, but if we fail, the values of the Union will be somewhat destroyed'.
The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, acknowledged that the departure of the first asylum seekers is only a 'drop in the ocean', but he hoped that it would become 'a torrent and then a river of humanity' and 'shared responsibility'.
He also stressed that Turkey, not Greece is the gateway for asylum seekers on the route to the EU, and better cooperation is needed with that country. The objective is that 'with time, registration and relocation procedures will begin on the Turkish coast, rather than on the Greek islands', thus saving the lives risked every day during dangerous sea crossings.
For Martin Schulz, distributing 1 million refugees among the 507 million inhabitants in the 28 Member States of the EU is not a problem. However, if only a small number of countries participate, it could become a problem for them, he cautioned, noting that since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the European Parliament has tirelessly called on all Member States to participate in the relocation mechanism.
Martin Schulz also noted that solidarity is among the fundamental values of the EU. The President of the European Parliament acknowledged that this is only a start, and a lot remains to be done to resolve the problem.But those who argue that it is a Greek, German or Italian problem are wrong, because what we are facing is a European challenge, stressed Martin Schulz. 'And the response to a global challenge cannot be national particularism, but European cooperation', he concluded.
Dimitris Avramopoulos stressed the need to make the relocation mechanism 'a standard process' and to work in parallel with third countries, in particular on return and readmission policies. According to the Commissioner, we need to be sure that those who are not entitled to refugee status, so-called economic migrants, can be sent home, he continued, noting that he would visit Pakistan soon for talks with the authorities on this point.
Ioannis Mouzalas praised the work of the volunteers involved in welcoming refugees. 'What you saw here today must become a matter of routine', he declared. He also noted that we must never become used to people losing their lives at sea while trying to reach the Greek coast.