Germany expects refugee numbers to hit record 800,000 this year

Afghan refugees aboard a federal police bus at a refugee registration centre in Passau, Germany.
Afghan refugees aboard a federal police bus at a refugee registration centre in Passau, Germany.EPA

BERLIN (AFP) - Germany expects to receive up to 800,000 asylum-seekers in 2015, a new record, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Wednesday, as he urged action from Europe on the crisis.

Germany has struggled to accommodate a wave of asylum-seekers from war zones such as Syria but also from countries without military conflict in southeastern Europe, including Albania, Serbia and Kosovo.

Europe’s biggest economy has become the top destination for those fleeing war and persecution but de Maiziere said other European partners must also share the refugee load.

“The European Commission should act against member states that are not assuming their responsibilities,” he told reporters as he announced the new official estimate.

“This development is a challenge for us all,” said the minister.

Berlin had previously expected 500,000 asylum-seekers to arrive this year.

Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Sunday that the asylum issue could become a bigger challenge for the European Union than the Greek debt crisis and urged a coordinated approach from Brussels.

Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who described the jump in refugee figures as the “biggest political challenge of the coming year", had stronger words for the EU which he said has “failed miserably in this task”.

A fair repartition of asylum-seekers was the “only sensible solution,” he wrote on Facebook, calling it a “disgrace” that some EU member states were unwilling to pull their weight.

De Maiziere said he sought action from the EU over the visa-free Schengen travel zone, as calls mounted from some German regional officials for controls to be reinstated.

“We want free movement of people but, and I have said this often, the question is what does free movement of people mean in Europe.

“Therefore I aim to get a European answer on open borders,” said the minister, who will meet his French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve on Thursday to discuss the record influx of asylum-seekers in the EU.

‘AN EMBARRASSMENT FOR EUROPE’

Figures also published Wednesday by the interior ministry show that the number of asylum requests has risen sharply in Germany in recent weeks.

In July, applications rose 5.1 per cent from June to 34,384 and nearly doubled from one year ago.

In the first 17 days of August however, the number of applications reached 50,000, said de Maiziere, who described the trend as “dramatic”.

For the seven months to July this year, Syrians topped the list of asylum-seekers, with 44,417 applications filed, almost three times that of the same period last year.

But it is the applications from the Balkans, which make up a significant chunk of demand, that have proved most controversial.

De Maiziere reiterated a complaint made last week that it was “unacceptable” that 40 per cent of a record wave of asylum-seekers in his country were from the Balkans, calling it “an embarrassment for Europe”.

“They are going to have to leave our country,” he said Wednesday.

Germany has in recent days started airing public service announcements on TV in Balkans countries urging people to stay home and stressing that if they leave for economic reasons, they have almost no chance of political asylum.

Politicians are also looking at speeding up the process for asylum-seekers from the Balkans in which they would be given a answer, as well as possibly deported, within a shorter timeframe.

Proponents hope such an accelerated process could free up resources to deal with requests from those fleeing conflict-torn countries like Syria.