BERLIN: Germany said it could take half a million refugees annually over several years as Greek islands struggled Tuesday to process a huge backlog of migrants desperate to travel to western Europe.
Reflecting deepening concern, the European Union’s president warned the EU faced a years-long refugee crisis, while the UN urged countries worldwide to help tackle the problem.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged greater flexibility in EU migrant quotas as her deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, said Berlin “could surely deal with something in the order of half a million (refugees) for several years.”
Germany, which has previously said it would take in 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, would continue accepting “a greatly disproportionate share” among EU members “because we are an economically strong country,” Gabriel said.
But it was unacceptable for the EU to rely on just a few countries, such as Austria, Sweden and Germany, he added, stressing that European policy “needs to change”.
On the Greek holiday island of Lesbos, where around 20,000 refugees and migrants have been waiting in squalid conditions to be registered for travel to the mainland, a new processing centre set up overnight was helping to defuse a situation that Athens warned was “on the verge of explosion”.
Around 30,000 people are stuck on islands in the Aegean Sea.
Greece’s migrant agency said it had asked the EU for emergency medical aid, bedding and over 9.5 million euros ($10.6 million) to support reception services on Lesbos, Samos, Kos and Chios.
Lesbos mayor Spyros Galinos said the pressure was easing after an additional 140 staff arrived from Athens to handle migrant and refugee registration.
A police source said Tuesday night a staggering 14,000 people had been registered since the previous night. The huge queues seen earlier in the day had dwindled to just a few dozen people by nightfall.
‘No beds, no anything’
Earlier, a handful of coastguards and riot police armed with batons struggled to control some 2,500 migrants in Lesbos’s main port trying to board a government-chartered ferry bound for Athens.
“It was horrible the last three days… There are no rooms, no hotels, no bathrooms, no beds, no anything,” said Hussam Hamzat, a 27-year-old engineer from Damascus who finally got his departure papers Tuesday after an overnight wait.
“I stayed here eight, nine days — oh my God, I can’t even remember,” said Aleddin, an engineering student hoping to join his brother in Germany.
The migrants are desperate to get into northern EU countries that have thrown open their doors, but between them lie several transit countries, some of whom like Hungary are intent on trying to keep them out.
Several hundred migrants broke through police lines at Roszke, on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, local media reported.
Further south, hundreds of migrants poured across Macedonia’s border with Greece, another bottleneck on the trans-Europe route.
The scenes underscored the task facing authorities from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea in handling the influx of people, many of them Syrians fleeing war and misery.
EU president Donald Tusk warned Monday the situation would likely last “for many years to come”.
The UN’s special representative for migration and development, Peter Sutherland, called Tuesday on countries around the world to join in the asylum effort, proposing an international conference “where every country is held up to the spotlight.”
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann called for an emergency response like that seen during the global financial crisis.
“In the financial crisis of 2008 we did everything we could to prevent a collapse of banks and the financial system. We must demonstrate the same efforts now so that the right to asylum can be upheld,” Faymann said in Vienna.
The remarks touched on a deep east-west division within the EU about how to respond to the situation.
Hungary vowed Tuesday to speed up construction of an anti-migrant fence on its 175-kilometre (110-mile) southern border.
The barrier intends to buttress a razor-wire fence that was completed on August 29 yet has failed to stop large numbers of people climbing over or under it.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker is expected Wednesday to unveil a plan to relocate 120,000 migrants from frontline EU states.
Germany would take more than 31,000 migrants, France 24,000 and Spain almost 15,000, a source told AFP. France has already agreed to take the 24,000 over two years while British Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain can take 20,000 over five years.
Opposition MPs on Tuesday urged Cameron to go further.
“We need a bigger plan,” said Yvette Cooper, a contender for the leadership of the main opposition Labour Party said.
The mayor of the French port of Calais, Natacha Bouchart said Britain’s intake should include the around 3,500 migrants camped out in her town in the hope of smuggling across the Channel to Britain.
Merkel, however, urged a cautious approach to quotas.
She described Juncker’s plan as “an important first step” but urged the bloc not to set a rigid quota ceiling and to factor in the situation on the ground.
The migrants’ plight has touched hearts around the world, spurred especially by pictures last week of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday President Barack Obama’s administration was also looking at how it could provide more help.
Venezuela said it would accept 20,000 refugees, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared migrants would be welcomed there with “open arms” and Chile’s leader Michelle Bachelet also vowed to take “a large number”. Canada’s Quebec province also said it will take 3,650 this year.