LONDON — Forty-thousand refugees will be relocated from southern Europe under a deal reached by political leaders to tackle the continent’s worsening migrant crisis.
The migrants will be moved from Greece and Italy to other European Union countries over the next two years under the agreement, reached early Friday in Brussels by European leaders. A further 20,000 refugees will be resettled directly from overcrowded camps in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Friday’s deal is a voluntary scheme, and exemptions were granted for Hungary, which is politically opposed to accepting migrants, and Bulgaria, one of the bloc’s poorest countries. Britain is also opting out of the plan, which was discussed at acrimonious talks.
"It was a very intensive debate," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting ended, describing the migrant crisis "as the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor."
The deal comes as Mediterranean countries are struggling to cope with an unprecedented influx of desperate people fleeing conflicts in north Africa and the Middle East.
The United Nations estimates that more than 135,000 migrants have cross Europe’s borders so far this year — already an increase of 149 percent from 2014. Greece has seen 63,000, Italy 62,000 and France 10,000, according to the U.N.
Most make the journey on dangerous, overcrowded boats. More than 2,000 have died trying to reach Europe in the past six months, and authorities have struggled to cope with the number of sea rescues.