A volunteer programme run by Italian Catholic and Protestant groups that flies in refugees from North Africa and the Middle East to spare them dangerous Mediterranean sea journeys may be replicated elsewhere in Europe, backers said Monday.
The humanitarian corridor project by the Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches (FCEI) and the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic non-governmental organization, aims to relocate 1,000 asylum seekers to Italy.
The scheme gives priority to vulnerable groups such as large families, and offers them comprehensive assistance upon arrival, including accommodation, language courses, school enrollment for children and professional training for adults.
The groups showcased the initiative on the day the European Union started expelling migrants from Greece and taking in a smaller number of Syrians from Turkey as part of a contested migrant deal between the bloc and Ankara.
"We want to show that an alternative [way of treating refugees] is possible," Pastor Luca Maria Negro, FCEI president, said.
"We are in negotiations with the governments of Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and San Marino," Sant'Egidio President Marco Impagliazzo said in a press conference at the foreign press association in Rome.
Impagliazzo said local authorities in Barcelona had expressed an interest in replicating the project, and Negro added that the Lutheran Church in Norway had similar intentions.
The FCEI-Sant'Egidio scheme has a 1.2-million-euro (1.37-million-dollar) budget, mostly covered by private donations to the Waldensian Protestant church through the Italian tax returns system.
The Italian government does not contribute, but has agreed to issue entry visas for refugees under the programme. About 100, mostly Syrians from Lebanese reception camps, have arrived since January, and another 150 are expected by the end of the month.