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With the Western Balkan route closed, more than 50,000 asylum seekers, including many women and children, are stranded in Greece in largely unsafe and appaling conditions. Meanwhile the EU scheme to relocate refugees moves at a glacial pace.

Two of the many children detained in the VIAL detention facility on Chios island, Greece. © 2016 Human Rights Watch

Last September, a majority of EU Council countries made a legally binding agreement to move 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. The idea was to alleviate pressure on Greece and Italy where migrants typically first arrive, and to create legal and safe access to other European countries as an alternative to the chaotic routes through the Balkans.

EU Commissioner Avramopoulos has expressed his frustration at the failure of EU states to fulfil obligations to relocate refugees and urged member states “to get ready to move at last.”

That’s an understatement: In contrast with the Commission’s objective to relocate 5,680 refugees every month, only 1,700 have benefited from the mechanism over the past 8 months – less than 2 per cent of commitments made last September. Things have barely moved faster since the closure of the Western Balkan route and the EU/Turkey deal came into effect. With very few exceptions, like Malta, Finland and Portugal, most EU nations are dragging their feet.

On the brighter side, Slovakia and Croatia, who had consistently resisted taking in aslylum seekers, recently took steps to make a few places available. Austria and Hungary still refuse to make any contribution despite an obligation to do so. The UK and Denmark are not bound by the scheme and unlike Ireland have refused to contribute voluntarily to it.

With more than 50,000 asylum seekers stuck in Greece and the numbers making the crossing on the Mediterranean to Italy increasing, it’s time to take more decisive measures. Those stranded cannot wait any longer. The EU should set up deadlines for states to relocate refugees. The Commission should also consider options, like infringement procedures, to pressure states that ignored their obligations.

In spite of its many obstacles, relocation remains the only viable plan to bring some relief to refugees while easing the pressure on Greece and Italy. And if the current emergency relocation mechanism cannot be made to work, it is hard to see a future for the permanent similar mechanism envisioned under proposed reforms to EU asylum rules.

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