Merkel, Hollande try to fire up European unity on migration crisis

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande urged European unity in the face of the continent’s migration crisis on Wednesday, jointly addressing the European Parliament amid mounting tensions over the refugee influx.

More than 550,000 people have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea this year – the largest number of migrants and refugees that the continent has had to contend with since World War II. Many of them are from conflict-torn countries such as Syria.

“We are speaking at a time when Europe has to once again overcome a big challenge,” Merkel told the parliament at its plenary in the French city of Strasbourg. “It is a test of historical dimension.”

Europe has made mistakes in the handling of the crisis, Hollande acknowledged.

“I recognize it willingly – Europe was slow to understand that the tragedies in the Middle East or in Africa could not be without consequences for it. Europe did not measure the hope it arouses and that it will long arouse in the face of distress,” he said.

“Europe did not dispense enough help to countries who were welcoming in camps ever larger populations. So it’s in an urgent fashion that it had to organize, Europe, to be worthy of its asylum tradition,” he added.

But at the same time, there is “no other solution than a strong Europe” to guarantee national sovereignty and to tackle the manifold global challenges, the French leader said.

Merkel also warned countries against taking an individualist approach to the migration crisis, insisting that “precisely now, we need more Europe.”

“Partitioning and sealing off are an illusion in the day and age of the internet,” Merkel said, noting that this would amount to a rejection of the continent’s values and identity.

People coming to Europe out of hardship must be seen as “humans, not some anonymous mass,” irrespective of whether they have a perspective of staying or not, the chancellor added.

She also stressed the need to better assist those countries bearing the brunt of the crisis in Syria.

The EU has been working on encouraging people to stay in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, to stem the flow headed towards Europe. An effort to step up cooperation with Turkey has proven controversial, however, amid concerns over the country’s human rights record.

“Turkey plays a key role,” Merkel said, praising the country’s “extraordinary” effort to support 2 million refugees.

But still, “it’s in Turkey that refugees have to be welcomed as much as possible,” Hollande argued.

Officials have warned that another migration wave is likely in the making because of the ramped-up conflict in Syria.

“There are hundreds of thousands of refugees now coming into Europe full of hope because they see Europe as an area of peace, justice and prosperity,” Spanish King Felipe VI said in his own address to the European Parliament on Wednesday. “We can’t let these people down.”

In Greece – the first stepping stone for many refugees on their journey to richer countries in western Europe – an estimated 5,000 migrants were ferried from the overwhelmed Aegean islands to the harbour city of Piraeus on Wednesday morning.

The previous day, around 7,000 arrivals were registered from the islands of Lesbos and Chios, according to state broadcaster ERT. The Greek Coast Guard rescued over 250 people from drowning in the Mediterranean on Tuesday.

European countries should make it easier for the bloc’s refugees to bring their partners and children to join them, a top UN official said Tuesday evening.

“It is particularly important that bringing the family together is made easier rather than more difficult,” Volker Tuerk, assistant high commissioner for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, told Austrian broadcaster ORF.

Tuerk’s statement came after comments from Germany’s Family Minister Manuela Schwesig on Tuesday, who was expecting “very many women and children to follow” the tens of thousands of predominantly male asylum seekers already in the country.

She said the women and children should take precedence in terms of protection and welfare provision.

Germany can expect a further swell of migrants as regional train services between Salzburg in Austria and the southern state of Bavaria were set to resume Wednesday.

Austrian Federal Railways (OeBB) has forged an agreement with private German rail company Meridian to resume selected services following talks with German border control.

The rail link between the two EU neighbours was cut for longer than expected after large numbers of migrants trying to make it to Germany disrupted services.

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