Germany could take 500,000 refugees each year for “several years”, the country’s vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, has said, as fresh clashes broke out overnight between police and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and thousands of people gathered amid chaotic scenes on the Greek border with Macedonia.
“I believe we could surely deal with something in the order of half a million for several years,” he told ZDF public television. “I have no doubt about that, maybe more.” Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, four times the total for 2014.
Gabriel also stressed that other European countries must also accept their fair share as refugees flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa and head for the EU.
As Greece struggled to cope with an influx of refugees – many from war-ravaged Syria – Donald Tusk, the EU president, warned that the refugee “exodus” could last for years. “The wave of migration is not a one-time incident but the beginning of a real exodus, which only means that we will have to deal with this problem for many years to come,” he said.
In Lesbos, where tens of thousands of refugees are stranded, about a dozen coastguards and riot police armed with batons struggled overnight to control about 2,500 migrants in the island’s main port as crowds surged towards a government-chartered ferry bound for Athens.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said about 30,000 refugees are on Greek islands, with 20,000 on Lesbos alone. The island has a population of about 85,000.
Melissa Fleming, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told a news briefing in Geneva: “Discussions in Europe this week are taking on even greater urgency because it obviously cannot be a German solution to a European problem.”
She welcomed announcements by Britain and France to take in Syrian refugees, but said reception centres must be set up in countries including Hungary and Greece.
“Those can only work if there is a guaranteed relocation system whereby European countries saying yes will take X number. We believe it should be 200,000 – that’s the number we believe need relocating in Europe countries,” Fleming said.
On Monday, more than 3,000 newcomers, most brought in on cruise ships from Lesbos, arrived in the port of Piraeus in Athens, according to authorities. The Red Cross has set up medical facilities in a central square in the capital where it handed out food and water to new arrivals.
Speaking on behalf of the organisation, Angeliki Fanaki, who is coordinating the relief programme, said every effort was being made to ensure refugees were received with a level of dignity they may not have experienced so far.
The vast majority of refugees and migrants in Lesbos have been forced to live out in the open – or at best in tents – with almost no access to running water or public toilets and conditions have become increasingly squalid.
The migration minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, himself a physician with Doctors of the World, described conditions as miserable after visiting the island on Sunday. Thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have converged on the island’s capital, Mytilini, home to 27,000 locals.
“It is an intolerable situation,” said the island’s mayor, Spyros Galanos, who has appealed to residents to boycott the country’s upcoming general election and threatened to close schools later this week if relief measures and emergency action were not taken quickly. On Tuesday morning, many locals told Greek TV that after several days of street clashes between refugees and riot police it had reached the point where they were afraid to leave their homes.
The government has responded by opening a second reception centre to speed up processing of the newcomers – who have also fallen victim to crisis-plagued Greece’s labyrinthine bureaucracy – and laying on more ships to transit them to the mainland. But with more new arrivals coming from Turkey, no amount of emergency action appears to be adequate.
The Greek government has appealed to the EU commission for €2.5bn in emergency funding – usually reserved for natural disasters – to deal with the crisis, which has also affected Greece’s northern border.
Tensions are high on its border with Macedonia, where at least 8,000 people were waiting to enter the former Yugoslav republic after 2,000 made the crossing on Monday. With the first light of day, police continued a search and rescue operation in the hope of finding a 23-year-old Syrian father last seen struggling in the fast-moving waters of the Axios river that separates the two states.
In Hungary, scores of migrants broke through a police line near a refugee centre and marched towards Budapest on Monday before agreeing to turn back. In Denmark, police closed a motorway in the south of the country as crowds headed towards the Swedish border.
Germany would keep accepting “a greatly disproportionate share” among EU members “because we are an economically strong country, without doubt”, vice-chancellor Gabriel said.
Britain, France and even Latin American countries have pledged to accept tens of thousands of refugees between them. Venezuela said it would accept 20,000 – the same number that Britain has promised to take over five years. Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, declared migrants would be welcomed with “open arms”, and Chile’s leader, Michelle Bachelet, said it was “working to take a large number”. Canada’s Quebec province also said it would take 3,650 this year.