The European Commission has unveiled a voluntary plan for its member states to deal with an influx of tens of thousands of migrants travelling to Europe via the Mediterranean.
The plan, announced after lengthy talks in Brussels early on Friday morning, aims to speed up the relocation of 40,000 migrants from Italy and Greece over two years.
Another 20,000 people now living outside of the EU and found in need of protection will also be resettled under the plan, which was immediately criticised by Italy for not imposing mandatory quotas on nations.
The distribution of the migrants will be agreed upon by the end of July.
Italy and Greece are the first destination for thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in countries including Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The EU’s failure to arrive at a mandatory quota system prompted Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to accuse other EU member states of not doing their share to help the migrants.
“Today’s agreements say something simple. Those who arrive in Italy and are found in need of asylum must be welcomed in the country where they arrive,” Renzi said.
“This is a principle that according to me is deeply wrong, because thinking that one country can handle such problems, without considering that we are dealing with Europe’s borders, is evidently a political mistake.”
Hungary, which on Tuesday indefinitely suspended the application of a key EU asylum rule requiring migrants to be processed in their country of arrival, and Bulgaria were excluded from the plan.
Swift return policy
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Brussels, said the agreement was “very small compared to the size of the problem”.
“If the number agreed are split between all the EU countries, that is only 1,428 people per country,” our correspondent said.
“At the same time there are big debates about better policing in the Mediterranean all to keep people out.”
Under the plan, migrants not found to be in need of protection will be swiftly returned to their countries – to discourage others from making the journey.
The European border protection agency Frontex estimated in a report released on Tuesday that 153,000 migrants, including those arriving via land, have been detected at Europe’s borders so far in 2015, a 149 percent increase over the same period in 2014.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said more than two thirds of those migrants had arrived via the Mediterranean. By June 8, its estimate of 103,000 migrants included 54,000 in Italy, 48,000 in Greece, 91 on Malta and 920 in Spain.
According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 1,770 men, women and children have died or disappeared making the perilous journey.
Alice Jay, campaign director for rights organisation Avaaz earlier this week described the “Mediterranean graveyard” as “Europe’s shame”.
Britain, Hungary, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, and Poland have previously opposed mandatory relocation.