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Debates over refugees and borders heat up in wake of attacks

European political leaders taking sharply different stands over whether the Paris attacks should alter refugee policies

Even before Friday's deadly attacks in Paris, Europe was engaged in an increasingly fraught debate over accomodating the hundreds of thousands of refugees that continue to make the perilous journey to the continent from Syria and other war zones. Early indications are that the fallout from the massacre will intensify that debate in the coming weeks. 

In the hours that followed the carnage in Paris, President François Hollande announced a state of emergency and the closure of the country’s national borders. In practice, though, rather than being completely closed, France’s border crossings simply saw a dramatic increase  in security measures, France 24 reported. Air France on Saturday maintained flights in and out of the country.

Restricting movement across the hitherto open borders that differentiate European Union member states echoed a concern of some of the EU's Eastern European member states who have been most alarmed by the almost 1 million refugees that have crossed their borders en route to Germany and Austria. 

Reports that at least one of the assailants in Paris may have hailed from Syria is being seized on by anti-immigration politicians to boost their calls for new curbs on admitting refugees to the EU. 

In France, the far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen said Saturday, “It is absolutely necessary that France regains control of its borders.”

Polls have been suggesting that Le Pen, known for her strong opposition to immigration, is likely to win regional elections in northern France next month. Polling also suggests she'll make it to the second round of the presidential election in 2017, although she is not predicted to win a runoff race.

Le Pen's hard line was not restricted to immigration controls. “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,“ she said, Saturday. “France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.”

In Poland, a leader in the incoming conservative government said his country must have guarantees of security before it can accept refugees and European Union decisions on immigration.

“This is a key condition that today was put under a giant question mark in all of Europe,” said Konrad Szymanski, Poland's prospective minister for European affairs.

Poland's new conservative government is to be sworn in Monday. The outgoing government agreed to accept 7,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea over the next two years.

In Germany, officials expressed varying opinions on whether the Paris attacks should influence refugee policy.

Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union, urged better protection of Germany's frontier and called for stricter controls at Europe's external borders. “In light of the increased migration to Germany, we have to know who is driving through our country,” he said.

Seehofer's party is a partner of the Christian Democratic Union of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but he has repeatedly criticized Merkel’s open-door approach to the refugee crisis.

Germany's interior minister, however, cautioned against connecting the attacks in France to the debate over the flow of refugees.

“I make the urgent plea, as interior minister and as a responsible politician of this country, that there shouldn't be any hasty links made to the refugee debate,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

Similarly, German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned against making his country less welcoming to refugees.

“We should not make them suffer for coming from regions from which the terror is being carried to us,” Gabriel said. “As a state under the rule of law, as a free state, we are always vulnerable. Still, we want to remain an open country, an open society.”

It is unclear at this point whether there will be changes in border policies that affect the European Union’s Schengen Area, in which more than 400 million European citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks. 

Germany had already on Sept. 13 reimposed border controls and decided to extend them beyond an initial limit of two months foreseen by Schengen rules, using a clause that permits stretching checks to a maximum of six months.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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