Germany said Tuesday that it would be able to take in 500,000 refugees a year over the course of the next few years, even as it again urged its EU neighbors to accept a larger share of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
“I believe we could surely deal with something in the order of half a million for several years,” German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told public television. “I have no doubt about that, maybe more.”
The comments come as Germany said it expected to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year — four times its 2014 total. However, Gabriel stressed that other European countries must do more to share the burden.
“We can't just take almost 1 million people every year and seamlessly integrate them” into German society, he said.
Germany, Gabriel said, would keep accepting “a greatly disproportionate share” of refugees among EU members “because we are an economically strong country, without doubt.” But it was unacceptable for the EU to keep relying on just a few countries, such as Austria, Sweden and Germany, he said. “That’s why I am certain that European policy needs to change.”
Part of that change could come from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will detail a plan to tackle the EU migrant crisis in an annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday.
That plan could include more funding for countries bearing the brunt of the crisis. The plan is also expected to call for a quota system — which has been controversial among EU states — to resettle asylum seekers among countries more evenly.
As increasing numbers of people flee conflict, persecution and poverty, divisions have arisen between Western European countries such as Germany that have opened their doors to refugees and Eastern European EU members that have adopted a harder line. EU interior and justice ministers are set to hold a special meeting on the issue on Sept. 14.
“You’re not going to have consensus next week when the interior ministers meet on this very topic. But you’re going to have the large majority, a very large majority of the EU member states essentially accepting to take up to 160,000 people — refugees — to be settled among themselves,” said Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “This is a tiny number relative to both the need but also the number of people that have been coming in.”
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Juncker’s plan to relocate refugees from overstretched EU states, she cautioned it was only “a first important step.”
“There is another step that needs to be taken because neither Germany nor Sweden can determine the number of refugees, given that it stems from the situation [on the ground],” she said after talks with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. “We need an open system to share out those with a right to asylum.”
Merkel’s comments come a day after EU President Donald Tusk said there was no “silver bullet” solution that would “reverse the situation,” adding that the current crisis was part of an “exodus” from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq that could last for years.
Meanwhile, Greece’s coast guard says its patrol vessels picked up nearly 500 refugees in 11 search and rescue missions over the past 24 hours in the eastern Aegean Sea. The people, whose nationalities were not immediately clear, were found in small boats near the islands of Lesbos — which sees nearly 1 in 2 migrant arrivals in Greece — Samos, Kos and the islet of Agathonissi.
Lesbos in particular has been overwhelmed by the arrivals, with more than 15,000 refugees and economic migrants stranded there. Some local volunteers have provided water and food for the arrivals, but there is a dearth of hygienic facilities in the area, where refugees await screening before they’re allowed to board a ferry to the Greek mainland — after which, they head north through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary in hopes of settling in more prosperous European countries.
Poland, which was so far agreed to accept 2,000 refugees, has been widely criticized for lacking solidarity with Germany. Poland’s Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tomasz Siemoniak defended his country’s approach to the crisis on Tuesday and faulted the current European plan for not having developed a thought-out strategy to handle the situation and for pushing for EU states to accept quotas of refugees.
He called that a “road to nowhere” because it would only encourage more people to arrive. He also said that Germany should not feel it has the right to teach Poland about solidarity, given that Poland was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, which helped bring down communism in the former Soviet bloc a quarter-century ago.
But Polish rime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Tuesday that her country could accept more than 2,000, under certain conditions. Our potential is bigger than the 2,000 we declared, but the conditions we set should allow those who will be coming to feel safe and that the Poles will be saying that the authorities took care that their lives were not destabilized,” she said.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban was quoted in Tuesday’s edition of the pro-government Magyar Idok (Hungarian Times) newspaper as saying he was persuaded to deploy more workers to finish the fence along the border after an unannounced inspection of the barrier on Monday with his chief of staff, Janos Lazar.
The fence along the 109-mile border with Serbia was supposed to be completed by Aug. 31 but is facing delays. Defense Minister Csaba Hende, who was overseeing the construction, resigned Monday after Orban’s visit.
Coils of razor wire have been stretched out along the whole border, but it has been regularly breached by migrants, who usually crawl under it. The higher barrier is up only on some sections, and no new completion deadline has been announced.
Hungarian police said Tuesday that they have detained more than 169,000 people for crossing the border illegally this year, including 2,706 on Monday. So far this year, the Migration Office has received nearly 158,000 asylum requests.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid contributed to this report from Lesbos.