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Merkel fends off backlash to Germany’s welcome to refugees

By LAURA KING | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 12, 2015

BERLIN — With asylum-seekers flooding into Europe at a record pace, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday fended off new criticism from inside and outside her country over her government’s decision to essentially accept fleeing migrants and refugees first and ask questions later.

As the continent weathers its biggest immigration crisis since World War II, organizers of pro- and anti-migrant rallies across Europe sought to bring people into the streets to support or oppose a pan-European bid to secure at least temporary haven for hundreds of thousands of voyagers from Syria and other war-ravaged countries.

More vexing are questions of what to do about those who are merely seeking a better life and have melded with the ongoing depopulation of Syria, and those seizing an opportunity to flee -torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S.-led wars over the past 15 years have had ambiguous outcomes.

Merkel said Saturday that the decision to essentially throw open Germany’s border was in response to “an emergency situation,” the German news agency dpa quoted her as saying. A party allied with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, however, has questioned the long-term effects of receiving such large numbers of asylum-seekers.

In Germany, new arrivals were expected again to number in the five figures over the weekend, with the military standing by to help cope with the influx.

Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union — rooted in Germany’s Bavaria region, which has been the entry point for refugees arriving from the south and east — said allowing in huge numbers of migrants and refugees afforded no chance to “put the cork back in the bottle.”

The weekly Der Spiegel quoted Seehofer, saying letting asylum-seekers try to gain a foothold in Germany rather than registering in the country where they entered the European Union was an error “which will preoccupy us for an extended period.”

In a weekly video message, Merkel sought to emphasize that many of the arrivals, particularly women, had suffered extreme trauma before fleeing. She urged female asylum-seekers, though, to try to integrate themselves into a more liberal European society, rather than staying home and failing to attain German-language proficiency.

In the Bavarian capital of Munich, authorities were bracing for the arrival of 10,000 people Saturday, putting the flow on a par with the 20,000 migrants and refugees who came by bus or train last weekend from Austria via Hungary, after having made their way through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia.

Germany, the desired destination for many, has renewed its calls for European solidarity in the face of the crisis, while at the same time warning that it was “reaching limits” because of the swiftness of the onslaught.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, touring central Germany, was quoted by dpa as saying that the sheer volume and speed of the refugee and migrant flow posed a greater difficulty than the overall numbers themselves. Germany has said it expects to receive at least 800,000 new arrivals this year, and quite possibly more.

In Germany and elsewhere, though, officials are increasingly looking to the sources of those fleeing. In a rare show of agreement, German and Hungarian officials called for steps to stem the numbers setting sail from Turkey — a short boat ride from gateway Greece — and for substantial increases in aid to Syria’s immediate neighbors, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which together shelter nearly 4 million Syrians.

Harsh criticism has been leveled at countries like Hungary, a way station on the trek to Germany that has made it clear it has no desire to settle migrants and refugees.

Hungary in the coming week intends to seal off its border as best it can with a razor-wire fence, deploy troops if necessary to enforce a blockade and implement measures criminalizing passage through its territory to seek asylum elsewhere.

Right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly blamed Germany for fostering the flood of refugees into Europe. Orban told Germany’s Bild tabloid that he would take in a refugee or migrant family if not for the fact that others would “take that as an encouragement to come to Europe.”

As a custodian of the European Union’s external borders on the West Balkans route, which this summer has exploded in popularity as a means of reaching wealthy and welcoming refuges like Germany and Sweden, Hungary says it is being criticized unfairly for harsh anti-migrant measures.

Merkel’s government has taken in by far the largest share of the new arrivals: 450,000 people. But German diplomats have fallen short in efforts to get other countries, particularly poorer members of the former Soviet bloc, to step up.

In the Czech Republic capital of Prague, Germany’s foreign minister suffered a brisk rebuff from four eastern states who said migrants and refugees did not want to settle there anyway. The European Union’s executive branch has thrown its weight behind a proposal to allocate 160,000 asylum-seekers among the 28-nation bloc.

“Migrants don’t want to stay in Slovakia,” the Slovakian foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, said Friday. But it is not only poor eastern neighbors of Germany that are opting out; Denmark, which is not legally obliged under EU rules to take in asylum-seekers, also has declined.

Germany’s powerful economy and welcoming stance make it almost impossible to keep asylum-seekers from trying to make it there, said Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

“Who’s going to keep them in Estonia, Slovenia or Portugal if they want to go to Germany?” he asked in his Bild interview.

Orban, though, came under new fire from Austria, Hungary’s northwest neighbor. Speaking to the German Weekly Der Spiegel, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said it was “irresponsible” to imply that all among the recent flood of new arrivals were economic migrants rather than those fleeing war and persecution.

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