ATHENS: Germany said Thursday it would speed up the repatriation of rejected asylum-seekers as new figures showed the country inching closer to the million-migrant mark and EU forecasts showed even more people seeking refuge in Europe next year.
After weeks of infighting in Germany’s ruling coalition over how to absorb record numbers of migrants Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of two allied parties agreed that those deemed economic migrants — from countries not at war — would be sent home within three weeks.
The coalition leaders also agreed to set up three to five “reception centres” for asylum-seekers deemed on arrival to have little chance of being allowed to stay — a move aimed at making it easier to repatriate those denied refugee status.
“We took a good and important step forward,” said Merkel, who had faced growing criticism over her open-door refugee policy.
The agreement between the ruling CDU/CSU alliance and junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, came as the European Commission said it expected the number of people fleeing war and poverty to Europe to reach three million by 2017.
From an estimated one million this year the Commission predicted the numbers would soar to 1.5 million in 2016 before falling back to half a million in 2017.
Stormier seas at the onset of winter have failed to stem the trans-Mediterranean migrant deluge.
The UN refugee agency said Thursday it expected up to 600,000 additional migrants to cross by boat from Turkey to Greece over the next four months.
Two more children, a young girl and six-year-old boy, died in the quest for a new life Thursday, adding to the grim toll of around 3,400 deaths in Mediterranean migrant shipwrecks this year, many of them minors.
The children died after the boat in which they were travelling sank off the Greek island of Kos.
On a visit to the nearby island of Lesbos, where a sailors’ strike has prevented thousands of arriving migrants continuing their journey to the Greek mainland, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called the migrant deaths “a crime…which must be stopped.”
Tsipras, who is to visit Turkey later this month for talks on the refugee issue, said registration facilities should be set up on the Turkish coast “so that no one has to risk losing their life in the cold waters of the Aegean.”
The vast majority of the people fleeing war and poverty across the Mediterranean have their sights set on Germany, which registered more than 758,000 asylum seekers from January to October, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the interior ministry said Thursday.
Berlin has already taken a firmer line against asylum-seekers from so-called “safe origin” Balkans states, leading to a sharp drop in October of arrivals from countries such as Albania and Kosovo.
In its first assessment of the economic effect of Europe’s biggest migration crisis since World War II, the European Commission said the influx — far from being a drain on economies as some Europeans fear — could boost gross domestic product by 0.2 to 0.3 percent.
The German government also sought to allay fears about the economic cost of its pro-refugee policies, assuring it could balance its 2016 budget despite spending billions more this year on migrant care.
Other European states foresee difficulty, however.
Sweden, which has received more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU country, this week appealed to other countries to help share its load.
The request earned a swift rebuttal from neighbouring Denmark.
“Each country has chosen (its) policy on refugees,” Denmark’s foreign minister Kristian Jensen told Ritzau news agency.
“They have chosen theirs, and they must now handle it whichever way they want.”
The sailors’ strike in Lesbos has trapped over 22,000 people on the island, state agency ANA said.
“We are three days hungry. I have three children. My children are sick,” a migrant told Tsipras in one of the island’s registration centers.
Tsipras, who was accompanied by European Parliament chief Martin Schulz, was also approached by an eight-year-old Syrian boy named Mohamedeen asking for money, ANA said.
While the spotlight has been mainly on the migrant route through Turkey and Greece lately, packed boats continue to set sail each week from Europe from restive Libya.
Nearly 1,000 migrants were rescued Thursday from a handful of rubber dinghies and a small fishing boat found adrift off the coast of Libya, another staging post for migrant crossings, the Italian coastguard said.