During an official visit to Greece with EU officials, Germany’s interior minister warned on 6 October that the region could soon face a refugee influx bigger than the one it dealt with in 2015, as he sought support for his plans for an EU quota system for rescued migrants. Traveling with incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister, also said the EU had to do more to support Turkey so that refugees did not attempt the often dangerous crossing to Greece.
“We have to help our European partners even more on patrolling the EU’s external borders. We have left them alone for too long,” he said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag. “If we don’t we will once again see a refugee wave like in 2015, maybe even greater than four years ago.”
The high-level trip comes as a deal between the European Union and Ankara to reduce the number of migrants reaching Greece from Turkish soil appears to be in trouble, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to “open the gates” for migrants to head to Europe if his conditions are not met.
A damaged deal?
Germany wants the EU to do more to support Turkey so that refugees do not continue to attempt the often dangerous crossing to Greece. During his visit to Greece, Seehofer said the EU needs to assist Turkey in dealing with the millions of refugees that have entered the country since the start of the Syrian war in 2011.
“Turkey is doing a great deal in welcoming refugees,” Seehofer said. “It is also in our interests, but it is clear that we cannot manage the future with the resources of the past.”
In 2016, the EU agreed to give Turkey €6 billion in return for it keeping Syrian refugees on Turkish territory but the agreement has been marred by accusations that Ankara is failing to turn back would-be migrants.
The problem was highlighted by a fire at Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos a week ago. The camp was designed to hold 3,000 people but is home to about 12,000 because of problems returning refugees to Turkey.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told the Funke newspaper group: “Our primary goal is to reduce irregular arrivals, fight smugglers and facilitate the repatriation of irregular migrants — and save lives as well as open legal channels for those in need of protection,” he said.
Last week President Macron of France highlighted EU divisions by accusing Turkey of using the migration issue as “a means of pressure” on the EU over Turkish foreign policy in Syria and as a lever to extract more money. In response, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, dismissed the French leader as a “crowing cockerel” who had “exceeded his boundaries by defaming Turkey”.
Towards a European quota system?
Mr Seehofer’s comments sought support for his plans for an EU quota system for rescued migrants and were aimed at central and east European opponents of EU plans to share the migration burden by relocating Mediterranean refugees across the bloc while their asylum applications are processed.
Ever since the crisis peaked in 2015 Berlin has been pushing in Brussels for a binding quota system, but these efforts have foundered in the face of resistance from eastern Europe. Mr Seehofer’s quota proposals have proven unpopular inside his own party. Ralph Brinkhaus, CDU/CSU faction leader in the Bundestag, suggested over the weekend that the plan would encourage smugglers to increase their activities.
“This is the interior minister’s initiative, it does not come from the CDU/CSU faction in the Bundestag. We will have to take a very close look at his plans,” Mr Brinkhaus said.
Migrant numbers on the up again
The official EU trip comes as the number of migrants reaching the Greek islands is on the increase once more, though the flow is much reduced compared with 2015 levels, when up to 7,000 people arrived on some days. More than 30,000 migrants are now being hosted on the islands, up from 14,000 in April.
However, the leftist government of former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras returned just some 2,000 people, despite overcrowding on several islands. The island of Lesbos, for example, is hosting some 13,000 migrants, although its reception center is designed for just 3,000. The new Greek government under conservative premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis is expected to take a harsher stance and return more people.
Ahead of Seehofer’s trip, a group of human rights organisations called on the German government to take some of the burden off Greece by taking in young refugees from the Aegean islands. A letter to Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel signed by charities Pro Asyl and Terre des Hommes, among others, described the situation on the islands as a “considerable risk to children and young people.”
“We therefore ask you to take in unaccompanied minor refugees from Greece and to use all existing legal means to reunite those seeking protection with family members in Germany,” the letter said.