BERLIN: A mass brawl broke out in a crowded refugee center in Germany, Europe’s top destination for people fleeing war and poverty, as the UN warned Thursday (Friday in Manila) the unprecedented migrant influx may yet grow.
As the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan driving the mass migration intensify, the UN refugee agency predicted 700,000 people would reach Europe via the Mediterranean this year and “possibly even higher numbers” would come in 2016.
More than half of those who have made it to Europe have been Syrians fleeing their country’s four-year civil war. Many have headed to Germany, which took in 280,000 migrants last month, more than in all of last year.
Tensions have repeatedly flared in the over-crowded apartment blocks, army barracks, tent cities, former supermarkets and other shelters where Germany has been accommodating them.
Some 200 Syrians and Afghans clashed overnight in a Hamburg refugee centre, a former hardware store now sheltering 800 people, leaving four people injured, police said.
Fifty police were called in to contain the violence, which reportedly broke out after an argument in a shower block and saw two groups attack each other with iron bars, furniture and rocks.
In earlier such disturbances, 14 people were injured Sunday when 70 Pakistanis clashed with 300 Albanians in a shelter in the central city of Kassel, before dozens of Syrians and Pakistanis came to blows Tuesday in a camp in the eastern city of Dresden.
Such trouble — though still relatively rare, given the massive numbers — has raised fears of worse to come as the inflow continues unabated and some migrants grow increasingly frustrated with long waits in tough conditions.
Police union chief Rainer Wendt has proposed separating refugees by religion and nationality — an idea quickly rejected by most lawmakers — but Thursday again warned that in some shelters “there are religious conflicts, inter-ethnic conflicts and criminals”.
Tempers have also flared — albeit without the physical violence — among politicians in neighbouring Austria, where the wave of asylum seekers has strengthened support for the populist far-right.
Last month, almost 170,000 people entered Austria, and while most travelled on to Germany and beyond, the Alpine country still expects a record 80,000 asylum requests this year.
Mainstream parties fear major gains by the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in upcoming Vienna polls after its share of the vote soared 15 percentage points in local elections last weekend in Upper Austria.
The FPOe now tops national opinion polls.
Tensions within Austria’s “grand coalition” government burst into the open Thursday, with the head of the centre-right People’s Party threatening to scupper the power pact after less than two years in office.
“If we are unable to show soon — by which I mean in the coming months — that we are willing and able to govern, then it makes little sense to keep messing about,” said Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner.
“I say quite openly that after the Upper Austria state election I am not prepared to be an idle passenger.”
In Hungary, meanwhile — the next country on the ‘Balkans route’ — work continued on a razor-wire fence along the Croatian border, as Budapest seeks to stem the migrant flow, having earlier sealed its Serbian border.
Hungary’s military engineers, wearing thick leather gloves to protect their hands, unrolled the wire at ground level in Beremend in Hungary’s south.
In another flashpoint of the crisis, up to 4,000 migrants remain camped in the French port of Calais, hoping to get to Britain through the Channel Tunnel, its entrance now guarded by barbed wire, armed police and dogs.
After migrants’ desperate attempts to enter the tunnel claimed at least 13 lives in five months, French train drivers said they were so fearful they could no longer do their jobs.
“Today we are afraid. Afraid to start, afraid to finish, afraid to drive, afraid to hit, to crush, to electrocute, to reduce to a pulp a wretched, disinherited, ill-fated, damned of the Earth,” wrote the drivers in the letter seen by Agence France-Presse.
The most recent reported fatality was Wednesday when an Eritrean in his twenties was found dead after being hit by a freight train.
In another illustration of the desperation driving many migrants, Spanish police said they had found a Moroccan man curled up and hidden inside the spare wheel well of a car that had arrived by ferry from Morocco.
Authorities in Greece, another frontline state in the crisis, on Thursday hastily reopened a derelict sports hall from the Athens 2004 Olympics to house hundreds who were sleeping on the streets of the capital.
Greece’s prime minister told the UN his country was doing all it could to cope with the unrelenting flood of migrants and refugees and criticised the building of walls to keep them out.
“We do not believe that the future of Europe or our world can be built on ever higher walls, or children dying at our doorstep,” Alexis Tsipras told the UN General Assembly in New York.
“We cannot allow racism and xenophobia to destroy our common principles.”