A beleaguered Germany announced Sunday that it would temporarily halt free entrance for asylum seekers, a dramatic step likely to exacerbate bottlenecks at other European frontiers to the south and east, where tens of thousands of migrants and refugees are already enduring desperate hardships.
Germany’s abrupt about-face came as Europe’s migrant crisis hopscotched the continent, with Greek authorities reporting a new tragedy at sea and Austrian officials saying dozens of asylum seekers, apparently being trafficked by smugglers, had been rescued from a refrigerator truck at a highway rest stop.
Europe for weeks has been convulsed by the greatest mass movement of people since World War II, with the crisis building as a bulge of refugees and migrants on the move has arrived at coveted northern destinations. More every day enter a “pipeline” beginning in Greece, in Europe’s southeastern reaches.
Germany’s intention to begin enforcing emergency border-control measures was announced at a news conference by Thomas de Maiziere, the interior minister, though he provided no details. A day earlier, arrivals in the gateway city of Munich, the Bavarian capital, had set a single-day record, with up to 14,000 people pouring in.
The migrant crisis has thrown into doubt the so-called Schengen Agreement, once touted as a signature achievement of the European Union, which allows passport-free movement between most of the countries in the bloc. De Maiziere has said previously the pact could be suspended in light of the stresses and strains of the migration crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described taking in those fleeing war and persecution as a moral imperative, with Syrians in particular almost certain to be granted asylum. But many others have seized the opportunity to join the huge migrant flow, including large numbers from Balkan countries whose wish to emigrate is based primarily on economic hardship. New checks at the frontier with Austria will probably try to weed out some of those.
In recent days, Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, had become more and more isolated in its willingness to take in all those making their way to its borders. European Union justice and interior ministers were to meet in Brussels on Monday to debate mandatory resettlement quotas for the bloc’s members — a plan that has drawn heavy fire, especially from governments in the continent’s more impoverished east.
Before Sunday’s announcement of border restrictions, signs had been emerging that Germany was feeling overwhelmed, particularly in Munich, the entry point for most arriving from Austria, to the southeast. “Munich on the brink of collapse,” read a headline in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
In recent days, Germany has been more vocal in blaming unwelcoming neighbors — and more distant parties such as the United States and the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf — for failing to step up and offer meaningful assistance in coping with the flood.
“The European lack of action in the refugee crisis is now pushing even Germany to the limits of its ability,” the economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said in an interview published Sunday by the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel on its website.
If Europe is bitterly divided over mandatory quotas for EU members, there is broad agreement that more aid needs to be funneled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have been front-line states in the depopulation of war-ravaged Syria. Gabriel called for a European fund of $1.7 billion to help them.
For nearly all of the asylum seekers currently traversing a vast swath of Europe, the journey begins with a short but increasingly dangerous sea voyage from Turkey’s Aegean coast to the closest Greek territory, its eastern islands. On Sunday, officials reported the sinking deaths of at least 32 people, including women and children.
Graphic pictures of a drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, who died along with his mother and 5-year-old brother while making the Turkey-to-Greece crossing, helped galvanize a worldwide outcry in recent weeks about the plight of asylum seekers. The current wave of arrivals is made up mainly of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans, with many other nationalities represented as well.
The German-backed plan to distribute about 160,000 of the new arrivals — a fraction of the total — among EU member states has met fierce resistance from countries such as Hungary, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Romania. Romania was the latest to announce it will not take in any more asylum seekers than an already agreed-upon number totaling less than 2,000.
In Austria — the final hurdle before reaching Germany, the desired destination for many — police said 42 people, including women and children, were found inside a refrigerated truck parked at a rest stop. All were in good health, but the incident evoked a horrifying episode last month in which 71 asylum seekers were found dead and decomposing inside a truck abandoned on an Austrian motorway. They were thought to have asphyxiated.
Although its resettlement policies are among the most generous in the EU, Germany has begun stressing that not all the new arrivals will be able to pick where within Europe they will be settled under envisioned quota systems. De Maiziere, the interior minister, was quoted Sunday by Der Tagesspiegel as saying that refugees will have to accept distribution across the EU, if the bloc can agree on a plan.
“There can be no free choice of residence,” he said.
Tensions have been rising in advance of an expected escalation of crackdowns that have already taken place in Hungary, a particularly dolorous way station on the migrant trail. With many of those who have passed through complaining of ill treatment, and human rights groups documenting harsh conditions in transit camps, Hungary is preparing to enact even more stringent measures this week.
Those include criminalizing of entry to Hungary unless asylum seekers are applying to stay there, and possible use of the army to patrol the border, where a 13-foot-tall razor-wire-topped fence is nearing completion.
Nearly half a million people have made the sea voyage to Europe this year, and almost 3,000 have died trying to reach the continent, international monitoring organizations say.
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