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Germany Says It Will Take In Refugees, Easing Burden on Greece

Written by on 15/09/2020

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While it could prove politically unpopular, Angela Merkel’s government will accept more than 1,500 refugees now living in Greece. It appeared to be a challenge to other E.U. members to do their part.

Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Melissa Eddy

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 people left homeless after blazes last 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 take action until there is a joint European Union 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 2015, when it accepted more than one million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The German government will allow 1,553 people from 408 families who have already been recognized as refugees by Greece to settle in Germany, Steffen Seibert, Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, said on Tuesday. Germany had already agreed to take in around 1,200 other asylum seekers who have been housed in Greece — about 200 unaccompanied minors, and 243 children requiring medical treatment, along with their families.

“In total, Germany will take in about 2,750 people from the Greek islands,” Mr. Seibert said in a statement, after the chancellor and her ministers reached agreement on the move.

Ms. Merkel’s willingness to take the political risk speaks to her confidence as she heads into what she has repeatedly said will be her final year in office, and at a time when her popularity has surged over what is widely viewed as her effective handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Germany’s move could increase pressure on other wealthy members of the European Union to act, and appeared to be an implicit rebuke over their failure to ease the strain on Greece, a member of the bloc.

The migrants who have been 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 toward undocumented migrants, welcomed the move, but warned that it should “in no way be seen as rewarding those who attempt to enter the country illegally,” according to a member of government who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the statement was not officially issued by the prime minster’s office.

“Rather,” the statement said, “it brings back to the European debate the issue of the relocation of refugees and of providing relief for countries of first entry ahead of the proposals of the European Commission for a common agreement for migration and asylum to be presented next week.”

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Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Mr. Seibert said the German government remained “committed to a more far-reaching European solution with other welcoming member states.” Should an agreement be reached, he said, Germany “would also participate to an appropriate extent in accordance with the size of our country.”

Under an E.U. agreement, Greece keeps migrants in refugee camps until their applications for asylum are processed — it can take more than a year — rather than let them pass through to the wealthier northern countries that most of them hope to reach.

Last week, blazes destroyed the largest of those camps, Moria, on the island of Lesbos, leaving about 12,000 people, including 4,000 children, stranded without shelter or sanitation.

Germany was one of 10 E.U. countries that agreed to take in unaccompanied minors from the camp in the immediate aftermath of the fires, but the center-left Social Democrats, who share power with Ms. Merkel’s conservatives along with the opposition Greens and the Left, rebuked the government for failing to take the lead.

Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister who in 2017 forced the chancellor to set a limit on the number of migrants allowed to enter the country at a time when the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative for Germany party was enjoying a surge in popularity, said that Berlin was still seeking support from within Europe.

“At this hour, there is not a single other E.U. country that is joining” Germany in its gesture, Mr. Seehofer told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday. Describing the situation in Greece as untenable, 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 the migrants as well as the local Greeks and humanitarian workers who have been supporting them. He called on all the bloc’s members to be more committed to helping to solve the problem.

“All European countries must mobilize their support for countries such as Greece that are on the front lines of the migration crisis,” Mr. Michel said. “There is no miracle solution when it comes to migration. We need coherent measures based on the values that bring us together.”

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.

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