The European Union warned on Wednesday that it will consider punishing member states next month if they fail to share the burden of asylum seekers stranded in Greece and Italy.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans criticised the bloc for having so far admitted only 12,000 of the 160,000 Syrian and other refugees required to be relocated from Greece and Italy to other EU countries by September this year. He said Brussels still hoped "peer pressure" would convince recalcitrant countries, but that it would consider penalties if there had been no progress by the time its next report on the issue comes out in March.
"It is highly urgent for countries to live up to their pledges, with the legally binding scheme set to expire in September," Timmermans said.
Penalties for failure to share refugee burden
"That is the right moment to consider other options if they are necessary," Timmermans told a press conference. "The commission might start infraction procedures and we will certainly consider that."
EU countries can be hit with large financial penalties by the commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc, if they break rules.
Timmermans added that it was "highly unfair" to leave overstretched Greece and Italy to try to persuade other countries, particularly Eastern European states where there is resistance to Muslim immigration.
Countries like Hungary and Slovakia have proposed paying "solidarity" contributions instead of actually taking in any migrants.
But countries like France and Germany insist that no country can shirk its duty to admit a minimum number of refugees under the plan, which was pushed through in September 2015.
Relocation and resettlement goals
In a more upbeat note, Timmermans said member states had now resettled 14,000 refugees directly from camps in the Middle East, more than halfway toward the goal of 22,000.
He said the European Commission's March progress report will be "the moment where I draw my conclusions what next steps we could take."
The European Commission's February report, published on Wednesday, said that less than 9,000 were relocated from Greece. Hundreds of thousands of migrants entered the country last year.
"The past months have seen progress on both relocation and resettlement. But for our efforts to match the scale of the challenge in both the EU frontline Member States as well as our neighbourhood, more needs to be done, and faster," said Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.
"Relocating all those eligible in Italy and Greece is possible but it takes political will, commitment and perseverance of all Member States to make it happen," he said.
During the relocation negotiations in 2015, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic had refused to comply with the compulsory quota system, based on each EU member country's population, income and unemployment rate.
In May 2015, the EU had announced the first relocation and resettlement plan for refugees from Italy and Greece.
"The temporary emergency relocation scheme was established in two Council Decisions in September 2015 in which Member States committed to relocate 160,000 people from Italy and Greece (and if relevant from other Member States) by September 2017. On 8 June 2015, the Commission adopted a proposal on a European Resettlement Scheme, which was followed by an agreement among the Member States on 20 July to resettle 22,504 persons in clear need of international protection, in line with the figures put forward by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)," stated a March 2016 press release on the European Commission website.
The ongoing conflict in Syria caused the biggest refugee influx since World War II. More than 5 million Syrians had to flee their homes externally.
Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees with almost 3 million people, according to Turkish authorities.