BERLIN – Germany on Tuesday agreed 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 recent fires week destroyed Europe’s largest refugee camp.
The decision followed intense debate within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, with some officials arguing that Berlin should wait to intervene until there is a common 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, Mrs Merkel’s spokeswoman Steffen Seibert said on Tuesday. Germany had already agreed to admit about 1,200 other asylum seekers who have been housed in Greece – about 200 unaccompanied minors and 243 children in need of medical treatment with their families.
“In total, Germany will take approx. 2,750 people from the Greek islands, ”Seibert said in a statement after Chancellor and her ministers reached agreement on the move.
Merkel’s willingness to take the political risk speaks to her confidence as she goes into what she has repeatedly said will be her final year in office, and at a time when her popularity has risen above what is widely considered as her effective management of coronavirus pandemic.
Germany’s move could increase pressure on other wealthy members of the European Union to act, and seemed to be an implicit reprimand for their failure to ease the burden on Greece, a member of the bloc.
The migrants packed into overcrowded camps on Greek islands come from dozens of countries, but the largest number are 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 trying to enter the country illegally”, according to a Member of Government who spoke on condition of anonymity because the declaration was not officially issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Rather,” the statement said, “it brings back to the European debate the issue of the relocation of refugees and of relief for countries of first entry ahead of the European Commission’s proposal for a joint agreement on migration and asylum presented next week. ”
Sir. Seibert said the German government remained “committed to a more far-reaching European solution with other inviting Member States”. If an agreement is reached, he said, Germany would “also participate appropriately according to the size of our country.”
Under an EU agreement, Greece keeps migrants in refugee camps until their asylum applications are processed – it could take more than a year – rather than letting them pass on to the richer northern countries that most of them hope to reach.
Last week, fires destroyed the largest of these camps, Moria, on the island of Lesvos, leaving approx. 12,000 people, including 4,000 children, stranded without shelter or sanitation.
Germany was one of 10 EU countries that agreed to admit unaccompanied minors from the camp in the immediate aftermath of fires, but the center-left Social Democrats, who share power with Mrs Merkel’s Conservatives along with the opposition Greens and Liberals, reprimanded the government for not to take the lead.
Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister who in 2017 forced the chancellor to set a limit on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country at a time when the anti-immigrant, far-right party Alternative for Germany is enjoying an increase in popularity, said Berlin was still seeking support from Europe.
“At this point, there is not a single other EU country joining Germany in his gesture,” Mr Seehofer told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday. Describing the situation in Greece as untenable, he said: “We can not wait forever.”
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, visited Lesvos on Tuesday in what he called an expression of solidarity with immigrants as well as the local Greeks and humanitarian workers who have supported them. He urged all members of the group to be more committed to helping solve the problem.
“All European countries must mobilize their support for countries such as Greece, which is at the forefront of the migration crisis,” said Michel. “There is no miracle solution when it comes to migration. We need coherent action based on the values that bring us together. ”
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.