Fresh clashes erupted between police and migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos Tuesday, the latest flashpoint of the crisis shaking Europe as EU President Donald Tusk warned the refugee “exodus” could last for years.
With authorities warning Lesvos was “on the verge of explosion,” a dozen or so coastguards and riot police armed with batons struggled overnight to control some 2,500 migrants in the island's main port, screaming “keep back” as the crowds surged towards a government-chartered ferry bound for Athens.
[The BBC, meanwhile reported that the caretaker Greek government and the UN refugee agency have brought in extra staff and ships to deal with the stranded migrants on the island, setting up a processing center at an abandoned soccer field to help them get to Athens.]
The scenes of chaos underscored the difficulty authorities across Europe face as they struggle with a surge of people making a hazardous trek through the continent as they flee war and misery in their home countries.
With other Greek islands close to Turkey also overwhelmed, Tusk insisted that “the wave of migration is not a one-time incident but the beginning of a real exodus, which only means that we will have to deal with this problem for many years to come.”
With several EU land borders already at breaking point, Lesvos, home to some 85,000 people, is now also hosting more than 15,000 mainly Syrian migrants arriving on its shores.
As the desperate plight of migrants touches hearts around the world, Britain, France and even South American countries have pledged to accept tens of thousands of refugees crossing the EU’s frontiers almost every day.
Venezuela said it would accept 20,000 – the same number that Britain has promised to take over five years – while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared migrants would be welcomed there with “open arms,” and Chile’s leader Michelle Bachelet said it “was working to take a large number.”
Canada's Quebec province also said it will take 3,650 this year.
Germany, Europe’s top economy, has said it can take some 500,000 refugees annually for a few years, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying the influx would result in profound change in the country.
“I stayed here eight, nine days – oh my God, I can't even remember,” said Aleddin, an engineering student hoping to join his brother in Germany, as he languished in Lesvos.
“Some people have been here for 14 or 15 days. The government doesn’t care.”
Hours after another 61 migrants were rescued off the island, Alternate Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas told To Vima radio the port of “Mytilene currently has 15,000 – 17,000 refugees… The situation is on the verge of explosion.”
Evangelos Meimarakis, leader of Greece's right-wing New Democracy party which could return to power in this month's snap election, said the country should strengthen its borders so as not to give “the message that ‘It’s good over here, come over’.”
In Hungary, scores of migrants broke through a police line near a refugee center and marched towards Budapest Monday before agreeing to turn back, while police in Denmark closed down a motorway in the south as crowds made for the Swedish border.
On Greece's border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), tensions were also running high as at least 8,000 people waited to enter the former Yugoslav republic after 2,000 made the crossing on Monday.
Libyan coastguards said they had rescued more than 120 migrants aboard a rubber dinghy, adding to the 366,402 people the United Nations estimates have crossed the Mediterranean this year – around half of them Syrians.
Turkey, meanwhile, detained a fifth trafficking suspect over two boat sinkings last week, including the one which claimed the life of 3-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, pictures of whose lifeless body washed up on a beach shocked the world.
Tusk said in a speech in Brussels that the “exodus” meant Europe had “to learn how to live with it without blaming each other.”
The EU has been riven by divisions on how to cope with the crisis, with countries like Germany urging more solidarity and mainly eastern nations such as Hungary taking a hardline approach.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker is expected Wednesday to unveil a proposal that would see Germany take more than 31,000 migrants, France 24,000, and Spain almost 15,000, a European source told AFP.
“If there is not a united policy, this mechanism will not work,” he said, referring to the passport-free Schengen zone across much of the continent.
Merkel, whose country is Europe’s top refugee destination, hailed as “breathtaking” the warm welcome given to the more than 30,000 migrants who arrived there over the weekend.
Germany pledged 8 billion euros more in funding to house them, on Monday.