Italy bid farewell Friday to the first 19 of an estimated 160,000 refugees who are due to be resettled throughout Europe as part of the EU's new redistribution program aimed at moving asylum-seekers out of overwhelmed receiving countries.
Grinning shyly before the media, the young Eritreans – five women and 14 men – waved and blew kisses as they boarded a small propeller plane at Rome's Ciampino airport after hugging members of the Red Cross and UN Refugee Agency goodbye.
"Today is an important day for the European Union, it is a day of victory... for those who believe in Europe, for those who believe in saving human lives," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told journalists after the departure.
"It is a defeat for those who claim it is better for the Mediterranean to become a lake of death... and believe that scaring the European people is the way forward," he added.
The scheme follows months of tensions over the more than 600,000 people who have flooded into Europe this year.
Sweden's immigration agency said the Eritreans, between ages 25 and 40, were selected because they have a chance of being granted asylum, and because they had family or other connections to Sweden.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that upward of 100 more refugees from Italian centres would be resettled in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere in the coming weeks and that 40,000 asylum-seekers would be moved out of Italy over the next two years.
Italy for years has demanded that European nations shoulder more of the burden of the refugee crisis. Though most migrants prefer to pass through Italy en route to destinations further north, Alfano has been keen to show off the first flight in an attempt to quiet anti-immigrant critics at home.
EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Luxembourg's foreign minister joined Alfano at the airport. Later on Friday, they travelled to the tiny island of Lampedusa, where the first "hotspot" to identify would-be asylum-seekers opened a few weeks ago.
The hotspots are being set up in Italy and Greece, where most of the tens of thousands of people seeking new lives in Europe first land after often-dangerous boat trips from Libya and Turkey. Hotspots are intended to establish whether people are fleeing conflict or violence and have the right to asylum or some other form of protection.
Once selected for resettlement, the asylum-seekers would go where they are told to go, not necessarily where they want to go, Avramopoulos said. "We must be very clear. They must obey."
Lulea, the main city in Swedish Lapland, couldn't be more different from the Eritreans' desert-covered homeland. Temperatures on Friday were 3 degrees C (37 F) but will dip to below freezing at night. Outside the city, reindeer, moose and bears roam in the wilderness.
Speaking at a news conference in Stockholm Friday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the influx of migrants "was the greatest humanitarian effort in Swedish history."
The number of Eritrean asylum-seekers in Sweden has recently dropped, from nearly 10,000 during the period January-September 2014 to 5,982 so far this year, according to official figures. The Eritrean community in the country is estimated to number at least 20,000, according to Swedish media.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2015-10-09