France, UK join Germany to support refugees

  • 08/09/2015
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Reuters)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Reuters)

By Frank Zeller

Britain and France have joined Germany in pledging to accept tens of thousands of refugees as Europe's record influx of people fleeing war and misery sparked warnings that one Greek migrant chokepoint was "on the verge of explosion".

European leaders are scrambling for solutions as bloody conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond have sent hundreds of thousands of desperate people on dangerous voyages through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean to the 28-nation EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is Europe's top refugee destination, hailed the warm welcome her citizens gave to 20,000 asylum-seekers who streamed across its southern borders on weekend trains, and pledged billions more in money to house them.

Signalling that the huge wave of arrivals marked a new milestone for Europe's biggest economy, she said that "what we are experiencing now is something that will... change our country in coming years".

"We want the change to be positive, and we believe we can accomplish that," she said.

France said it would take 24,000 more asylum-seekers under a European plan to relocate 120,000 refugees from hard-hit frontline countries.

And British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday said his country would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps near the war-torn country's borders over the next five years.

In Greece, the situation on Lesbos island near Turkey was "on the verge of explosion" with the recent arrival of more than 15,000 mainly Syrian refugees, the immigration minister warned.

Elsewhere tensions have flared too as about 40 men rioted at a Spanish migrant detention centre in Valencia late on Sunday and dozens tried to escape, in clashes that left five police injured.

Underscoring the danger brought home by last week's shocking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying drowned in the surf, a Greek passenger ferry on Monday sent its lifeboats to rescue 61 migrants whose boat was at risk of sinking off Lesbos.

Libyan coastguards said they had rescued over 120 migrants aboard a rubber boat in trouble on the high seas en route to Europe. Elsewhere migrants rescued by Italian authorities on Sunday said five of their group were still missing.

Merkel hailed as "breathtaking" the emotional and warm welcome given to the thousands of migrants and said Germany was now seen by many abroad as a place of "hope" after citizens turned up in large numbers to shower the new arrivals with gifts, cash and toys.

She said that the government would contribute six billion euros for new shelters, extra police and language training in 2016.

Merkel stressed that other EU countries must take in more migrants because "only with common European solidarity can we master this effort".

French President Francois Hollande warned that unless the EU makes a greater collective effort, the core European ideal of open borders will be in peril.

But Europe looked far from united as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has taken a hard line, said quotas would be futile so long as refugees kept streaming in.

"As long as we can't defend Europe's outer borders, it is not worth talking about how many people we can take in," Orban said in a speech in Budapest.

The European Union is readying fresh quotas that would see the two top EU economies take nearly half of the 120,000 refugees to be relocated, under a plan by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Under the proposal, Germany would take over 31,000, France 24,000, and Spain almost 15,000 to relieve the burden on frontline countries Greece, Italy and Hungary, a European source told AFP.