BERLIN: Britain and France Monday 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 send 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 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.
As EU leaders stepped up efforts to tackle the historic crisis, France said it would take 24,000 more asylum-seekers under a European plan to relocate 120,000 refugees from hard-hit frontline countries.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would also do more, taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees from overflowing camps near the war-torn country’s borders over the next five years.
Across the Atlantic, Canada’s Quebec province pledged to welcome 3,650 Syrian refugees this year.
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 on an island inhabited by 85,000 people, the immigration minister warned.
Tensions are also high at the border between Greece and Macedonia, where thousands of migrants and refugees were massed, impatiently waiting to cross from Greece.
From Macedonia, the migrants usually cross into Serbia and from there travel onto Hungary, Austria and Germany.
Hungary has taken a hard line on refugees but at the weekend gave into pressure to allow them pass into Austria after a large crowd began to walk from Budapest to the border.
Scores more were on the march on Monday, heading for Budapest after breaking through police lines at a registration centre near the border with Serbia.
Meanwhile, the poor and desperate kept coming, both on the land corridor through Turkey and the Balkans and on overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean on journeys that have left 2,800 dead or missing this year.
EU President Donald Tusk warned on Monday that the “exodus” from war-torn hotspots could last years, making it “so important to learn how to live with it without blaming each other”.
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 dinghy en route to Europe.
As governments crack down on ruthless people smugglers charging thousands of dollars for the dangerous sea journeys, Turkey detained a fifth trafficking suspect over two boat sinkings last week, including the one which claimed the life of the three-year-old boy.
So far this year, 366,402 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean, 51 percent of them Syrians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Germany took in another 2,000 refugees by early afternoon, after more than 20,000 arrived on around 100 trains from Hungary through Austria over the weekend.
Merkel hailed as “breathtaking” the warm welcome given to them and said Germany was now seen by many abroad as a place of “hope”.
Europe’s top economy — which expects 800,000 asylum requests this year, four times last year’s total — faces extra costs estimated at 10 billion euros ($11 billion) this year and next.
Merkel said that the federal government would contribute six billion euros for new shelters, extra police and language training in 2016.
Schengen ‘collapse’ warning
But she also stressed that other EU countries had to help shoulder the burden, saying “only with common European solidarity can we master this effort”.
French President Francois Hollande warned that unless the EU made a greater collective effort, the core European ideal of open borders will be in peril.
“If there is not a united policy, this mechanism will not work, it will collapse, and it will … undoubtedly be the end of Schengen, the return of national borders,” he said about the passport-free zone across much of the continent.
Welcoming Hollande’s “courageous” announcement on taking 24,000 refugees the EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called on “all European leaders … to take decisions that are coherent with the emotions they express”.
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 Budapest.
Under pressure from Berlin and Paris, 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 proposal to be unveiled by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday, Germany would take over 31,000, France 24,000, and Spain almost 15,000 to relieve the burden on Greece, Italy and Hungary, a European source told AFP.