More than a year after the EU promised to disperse 160,000 refugees from overstretched Greece and Italy to other EU countries, only 8,162 people have been found a home, figures from the European commission show.
Although the EU has met only 5% of its goal, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of migration, declared it was possible to hit the target by September 2017.
The Greek commissioner hailed a rise in resettlement numbers in November and predicted the trend would get better. “More and more member states have opened their doors,” he said. “I believe that very soon we will be in a position to say that the relocation scheme works.”
A total of 6,212 refugees have been relocated from Greece and 1,950 from Italy, the two countries at the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis.
The EU forced through a refugee quota plan in September 2015 as it scrambled to deal with the arrival of more than 1.2 million asylum seekers that year. But the agreement was bitterly opposed by central European countries, which have scarcely bothered to implement a policy they saw as unworkable and a breach of sovereignty.
Hungary and Poland have not taken any asylum seekers from Greece or Italy. Slovakia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of the month, has given shelter to only nine people, while the Czech Republic has taken 12.
The UK, which can opt out on parts of European asylum policy, chose not to participate in the scheme.
Europe’s deep-rooted divisions on migration will be on display on Friday when EU home affairs ministers meet in Brussels to debate the meaning of “effective solidarity”, the latest EU buzzword on how to share the cost of asylum seekers.
In May, the European commission called on countries that refused to take in asylum seekers to pay a €250,000 (£212,000) “solidarity contribution” for every person Brussels thought they should take. The Visegrád quartet of central European states denounced the idea as blackmail.
Slovakia has been trying to steer countries towards compromise, but diplomats have conceded that no breakthroughs will emerge on Friday or next week when the issue is kicked up to an EU leaders’ summit on Thursday.
The latest commission data also shows that 748 people have been sent back from the Greek islands to Turkey under a controversial deal between Ankara and the EU, which has helped to sharply reduce migrant flows.
Under the one-for-one deal agreed in March, the EU promised to shelter one Syrian refugee living in Turkey in exchange for sending back someone denied asylum in Europe.
To meet its part of the bargain, the EU has so far taken 2,761 Syrian refugees from Turkey, but this falls far short of the 12,000 places mooted and the 72,000 places available under EU law. So far the EU has delivered €677m of the €3bn promised for Syrian refugees in Turkey by the end of 2017.
The EU effort is certain to disappoint Turkey, which is sheltering 3.2 million refugees. Turkey’s outgoing ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, told the Guardian in September that he believed the EU had promised a long-term scheme that would see 150,000 to 200,000 refugees a year resettled in Europe.
Tensions between Ankara and Brussels are already running high after the European parliament voted to freeze Turkey’s EU accession talks, prompting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, to threaten to tear up the migration deal.
Behind the scenes, EU officials have expressed confidence the Turkey deal will stick. Leaders are using it as the template for agreements with five African countries – Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Mali – where many attempting the dangerous crossing to Italy come from.
A draft of next week’s summit conclusions seen by the Guardian shows that EU leaders will call for migration pacts to be considered for other unnamed countries “taking into account available resources”
European leaders are anxious to show they have a grip on migrant numbers before a series of crucial elections in 2017. Meanwhile the EU institutions want to demonstrate EU refugee policy can work.
To that end, the EU executive issued a vote of confidence in Greece’s overstretched asylum system by calling for an end to the six-year ban on refugees being returned there.
Under EU rules, refugees can be sent back from a member state to the one they first arrived in. But countries have been prevented from returning asylum seekers to Greece since 2011, after the European court of human rights ruled that conditions in its asylum centres were so bad they were tantamount to “degrading treatment”. The court also found that people at risk of persecution were at risk of being sent back to their country of origin without due legal process.
Hailing progress by the Greek authorities, on Thursday the European commission recommended a “gradual” restart in refugee returns to Greece from 15 March 2017. The commission also announced it was dropping legal proceedings against Greece and Italy, as both countries were now compliant with an EU law on taking fingerprints of new asylum claimants.
But in an acknowledgement of shortcomings, the ban on refugee returns to Greece will remain in place for children and vulnerable groups. Countries wishing to send asylum claimants back to Greece will also need to take the unusual step of getting assurances from Greek authorities.
National governments and courts will have the final say on the commission’s recommendation.
Although EU officials expect only a small number of people to be affected by the policy shift, it is a powerful symbolic move intended to show the EU has migrant flows under control.
But the move is likely to face criticism from refugee rights groups that have highlighted squalid, overcrowded conditions for tens of thousands of people in Greek asylum camps.
More than 57,000 people are stranded in temporary camps in Greece, living in conditions that do not meet international humanitarian standards, according to the International Rescue Committee. The IRC, along with other NGO observers, has documented long queues for food and water, and a lack of schooling and opportunities for work.