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article imageEU's refugee quotas end but divisions persist

By Cédric SIMON (AFP)     Sep 26, 2017 in World

The EU's troubled migrant quota scheme wraps up Wednesday after two years, but while it draws a line under the most intense phase of the crisis, divisions over migration are deeper than ever.

Opposed from the start by eastern states, the programme has seen less than a fifth of a planned 160,000 Syrians and other asylum-seekers relocated around the bloc from Italy and Greece by the use of compulsory quotas.

Brussels insists that the scheme was a success which eased intolerable pressure on frontline Mediterranean states from the biggest migration crisis to hit Europe since World War II.

Europe's asylum rules -- which state that an asylum-seeker's application must be dealt with by the country where the person first arrives in the EU -- will now return to normal from one minute past midnight on Wednesday (2201 GMT Tuesday).

"From our point of view, the relocation programme has been a success," a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said this week.

A total of 29,000 people have been relocated from Italy and Greece over the past two years under the quotas, which initially set out a compulsory number of Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans that each EU state must take.

While no more new arrivals will be relocated, another 10,000 who have already made it to Greece and Italy before Tuesday's cut-off date are still eligible.

- 'Much smaller' than expected -

The figure is however a far cry from the original plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers in a first phase of compulsory quotas -- against a total of 1.5 million migrants and refugees who arrived in Europe by sea since the start of 2015.

EU officials say that is partly because arrivals dropped drastically after a 2016 deal with Turkey, while most of those arriving in Italy come from African countries or others that do not qualify for the relocation scheme.

"The number of people eligible for relocation has turned out to be much smaller" than initially believed in September 2015, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said.

"That explanation holds," said Yves Pascouau, a migration expert at Nantes university in France.

But he added that many of those who would have been eligible carried on from Greece in the great sweep of migrants up through Europe to the north in late 2015, he said.

"They sort of relocated themselves, so from this perspective, you can't talk of success."

- East-West split -

The migration row has deepened a rift between the bloc's newer eastern states and the older western members.

The quota scheme was born in acrimony, with the EU pushing the quotas through in September 2015 despite four eastern European countries voting against them.

Since then Poland, Hungary and the Czechs have refused to take any asylum seekers at all under the programme, prompting the European Commission to take legal action against them earlier this year.

"We don't want to become a country of immigration," Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Obran said last week.

The migration issue has also fuelled the rise of populism in the bloc, as seen in Germany's recent election.

Germany pushed for the relocation scheme after taking in one million migrants from Syria, but Angela Merkel has paid the political price for that with the hard right Alternative for Germany (AfD) surging in Sunday's election.

The issue has split the EU at its core, too.

Jean-Claude Juncker's European Commission pushed the quotas hard, insisting that the benefits of EU membership also brings responsibilities.

But European Council President Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier whose institution represents the 28 member states, has warned that this issue more than any other has the potential to drive voters towards populism.

As a result the bloc is unlikely to take on any similarly ambitious scheme again, contenting itself to tinker with the "Dublin" rules on asylum for the forseeable future.

Plans by the European Commission for permanent quotas in times of crisis were unceremoniously dropped after Poland and Hungary said they would oppose it at all costs.

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