Refugee crisis strains Merkel’s coalition

Refugee crisis strains Merkel’s coalition

Berlin – Strains within the German coalition government over the burgeoning refugee crisis were evident on Friday, as ministers put troops on alert and warned that 40 000 new arrivals were expected this weekend alone.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made the prediction as he attended a meeting in Prague, where he urged his Central European colleagues to work toward a just distribution of the burden.

“We are relying on European solidarity,” Steinmeier said, as the representatives of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia again rejected mandatory quotas.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen had put 4 000 troops on alert to help deal with the crisis, a ministry spokesperson said, confirming a report in Der Spiegel magazine.

According to official figures, 37 000 refugees were registered in Germany September 1-8. Around 450 000 have arrived so far this year, a figure expected to rise to 800 000 by the end of the year.

Senior members of the Christian Social Union (CSU), a key member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s broad coalition government, increased their criticism of her open-arms policy even as a new poll showed strong support for welcoming refugees.

“We have lost control,” Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former interior minister told the Passauer Neue Presse daily. He warned of “devastating consequences”.

Friedrich’s remarks were clear indication of a major rift opening up on the issue between the Bavarian-based CSU and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and were immediately rejected by senior CDU politician Norbert Roettgen.

“I see the government’s conduct and that of the chancellor as their greatest achievement to date,” Roettgen, chair of the German parliament’s foreign policy committee, told national public broadcaster ARD.

Pointing to the tens of thousands of refugees entering Western Europe via the “Balkan Route” through Serbia and Hungary, Friedrich said the decision to allow refugees to cross the border from Hungary into Austria had been “a political error without parallel”.

Sleeper agents

It was impossible to tell how many might be Islamic State (ISIS) fighters or Islamist sleeper agents, he said.

“I am in any case convinced that no other country would be so naive as to expose itself to danger in this way,” Friedrich said.

He called for refugees to be registered and their credentials checked even before they reached Europe’s borders and warned that border controls would soon have to be reintroduced in the Schengen free-movement zone, which includes 26 EU countries.

“Even if the official statements still reject this, the German government would do well to prepare itself for this situation,” said Friedrich, who was federal interior minister from March 2011 to December 2013.

Roettgen responded that “Hans-Peter Friedrich is completely wrong on this”.

As chair of the Bundstag’s foreign policy committee, he called for a shift in combating the causes of the crisis away from the need to act domestically towards “the leeway in foreign policy that we have”.

“I call for a humanitarian buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border,” he said. While this could not halt the people seeking safety, it could direct the flow.

A clear majority of Germans backs the government’s policy on refugees, according to a poll published Friday by national public broadcaster ZDF.

Two thirds – 66% – saw as right the decision to allow refugees to cross the Hungarian border and head for Germany through Austria, against 29% who were opposed.

A full 85% predicted the move would encourage others to head for Germany.

The Interior Ministry rejected a report Friday in the Passauer Neue Presse to the effect that German security had already identified 29 proven fighters in the Syrian civil war among those seeking asylum.

“There are repeated reports that there could be Islamic State fighters among the refugees, but to date these have not been confirmed,” ministry spokesperson Tobias Plate said.

The German internal intelligence agency believes there are more than 43 000 adherents of what it terms the “Islamist scene” in Germany, with around 1 000 of them placed in the “Islamist terrorist spectrum”, of whom in turn 260 are thought capable of an act of terrorism.

According to the head of the agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, more than 730 have left Germany for the battle zones in Syria and Iraq, many to join Islamic State. About 200 have since returned, many after receiving weapons training.


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