BERLIN – Germany agreed on Tuesday to take in more than 1,500 refugees now living in Greece, in a challenge to other wealthy European countries that have been reluctant to help Greece resettle thousands of homeless people after the fires last week they destroyed the largest refugee camp in Europe.
The decision followed an intense debate within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, with some officials arguing that Berlin should wait to act until there is a joint EU response to the crisis in Greece. They feared that a unilateral move by Germany, while showing solidarity with Greece, could create the politically unpopular impression that the country had reopened its borders, as it did in 201
The German government will allow 1,553 people from 408 families who have already been recognized as refugees by Greece to settle in Germany, Ms. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said Tuesday. Germany had already agreed to welcome around 1,200 other asylum seekers who have been housed in Greece – around 200 unaccompanied minors and 243 children in need of medical care, along with their families.
“In total, Germany will welcome around 2,750 people from the Greek islands,” Seibert said in a statement after the chancellor and his ministers agreed on the move.
Ms. Merkel’s willingness to take the political risk speaks to her confidence as she heads towards what she has repeatedly stated will be her last year in office, and at a time when her popularity has increased from what is widely regarded as its effective management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Germany’s move could increase pressure on other wealthy members of the European Union to act, and it appears to be an implied reprimand for their failure to relieve tension on Greece, a member of the bloc.
Migrants who have been crammed into overcrowded camps on the Greek islands come from dozens of countries, but the largest number come from Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has dramatically hardened Greek policy towards undocumented migrants, welcomed the move, but warned that “it should in no way be seen as a reward for those attempting to enter the country illegally,” according to one member of the government who spoke on condition of anonymity because the statement was not officially released by the prime minister’s office.
“Rather”, the statement reads, “brings the issue of relocating refugees back to the European debate and providing assistance to countries of first entry in view of the European Commission’s proposals for a joint agreement on migration and asylum. week. “
Seibert said the German government remained “committed to a more far-reaching European solution with other welcoming member states”. If an agreement were to be reached, he said, Germany “would also participate to an appropriate extent based on the size of our country”.
Under an E.U. agreement, Greece keeps migrants in refugee camps until their asylum applications are processed – it can take more than a year – rather than letting them pass into the richer countries in the north that most of them hope to reach.
Last week, fires destroyed the largest of those camps, Moria, on the island of Lesbos, leaving around 12,000 people, including 4,000 children, stranded without shelter or sanitation.
Germany was one of 10 European countries that agreed to take in unaccompanied minors from the camp immediately after the fires, but center-left Social Democrats, who share power with Ms Merkel’s conservatives along with the Greens and left-wingers. opposition, they reproached the government for not doing so. take control.
Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister who forced the chancellor in 2017 to set a limit on the number of migrants allowed to enter the country at a time when the far-right anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party was enjoying a surge in popularity, he said Berlin was still seeking support from within of Europe.
“At this time, there is not even another European Union. A country joining Germany in its gesture, Seehofer told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday. Describing the situation in Greece as unsustainable, he said: “We cannot wait forever”.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, visited Lesbos on Tuesday in what he called an expression of solidarity with migrants, local Greeks and the humanitarian workers who supported them. He called on all members of the bloc to be more committed to helping solve the problem.
“All European countries must mobilize their support for countries like Greece which are at the forefront of the migration crisis,” said Michel. “There is no miracle solution when it comes to migration. We need coherent measures based on the values that unite us. “
Niki Kitsantonis helped bring back from Athens.