Angela Merkel’s government has bowed to pressure from her Social Democrat coalition partners, opposition politicians and churches and agreed to take in 1,553 Moria camp refugees stranded on Greek islands.
The German chancellor acted after more than 12,000 migrants at Moria Camp on Lesbos were left without shelter when the camp was burnt down in a suspected arson attack last week, government sources said.
Images of migrants living rough since then have triggered urgent calls for action in Germany, with the mayors of several cities saying they have capacity to take more in. They will focus on families with children who have already been granted protected status by the Greek authorities.
The Social Democrats said the country was ready to take in more migrants as part of a deal with its EU partners. Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, said: “We must work on an overall European solution which we will again contribute to in line with our strength and size.”
However, the proposal has yet to be approved by the Greek government, which fears it could motivate refugees in other camps to set fire to their accommodation in the hope of getting to Germany. Five migrants have been arrested on suspicion of setting the Moria camp on fire, and a sixth suspect is believed to have fled the island.
Ms Merkel has discussed a plan to build a new EU-run migrant camp in Greece with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. She is compelled to take the lead in solving a growing humanitarian crisis because Germany holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and because she has insisted that her country continue to take in asylum-seekers.
Critics on the right wing of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party are warning that she risks a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis if she agrees to a large, one-off intake that might encourage other migrants to try to enter Europe. About 890,000 refugees came to Germany in 2015 and her words “wir schaffen das” — “we’ll manage it” — haunted her in subsequent elections as support surged for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany.
The decline in support for the CDU forced Mrs Merkel to step down as party leader in 2018. However, her robust handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in which Germany has seen far fewer deaths than other countries, has strengthened her and the party, which scored well in local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday.
“Merkel must perform a balancing act between national problems and Germany’s role in the EU presidency,” Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst at Free University in Berlin, told The Times. “She has to maintain the mantra that Europe needs a common migrant policy but she lacks support for it in Europe and she doesn’t have enough time to stabilise or renegotiate migrant accords with Turkey.
“All she can do at the moment is to support the construction of new camps under EU administration in Greece.”