Rallies engulfed Europe on Saturday in response to the escalating refugee crisis.
Tens of thousands of people filled central London to protest the British government’s position on the migrants’ plight. Human rights activists, politicians and performers marched to Parliament Square in solidarity with the refugees, who are trying to escape armed conflicts, especially in the Middle East.
Protesters were holding placards reading “Open the Borders” and “Refugees In, Tories Out,” a reference to the party of Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron agreed last week to take in 20,000 refugees over five years.
Five hundred thousand migrants and refugees have been seeking asylum in European Union countries this year.
A crowd of about 30,000 people rallied in Copenhagen, Denmark, where local media reported demonstrators held up signs reading “Refugees Welcome” and “Europe is the closest neighborhood to Syria.”
In Stockholm, Sweden, about 1,000 people gathered in a show of support for a more generous government policy on welcoming refugees.
But about 5,000 people joined a protest against migrants in Warsaw, Poland, where the government has opposed fixed refugee quotas proposed by the European Union. Many of them chanted anti-Islamic slogans, foreign media reported, while a much smaller number, about 1,000 people, rallied in favor of welcoming migrants into Poland.
Hungary plan criticized
Hungary’s plan to build a large fence, deploy the army and jail immigrants drew harsh criticism from Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, who compared Hungary’s treatment of migrants to the Nazi era.
“Piling refugees on trains in the hopes that they go far, far away brings back memories of the darkest period of our continent,” Faymann was quoted as saying Saturday by the German weekly Der Spiegel.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Faymann’s comments were “totally unworthy of any leading 21st-century European politician.” Hungary summoned the Austrian ambassador in Budapest to object to the comments.
Hungary has seen more than 180,000 migrants and refugees this year going through its territory to cross the border to Austria, with Germany as their final destination.
Sharing the burden
Speaking in Berlin on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the EU member states to share the responsibility of accepting people seeking asylum. Germany expects to take in 800,000 migrants and refugees this year alone.
East European countries, the United States and rich Persian Gulf nations are coming under sharp criticism from human rights groups for not doing enough to help with the migrant crisis.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called for a massive European aid package for Syria’s neighbors to help curb the flow of migrants into the European Union.
Orban spoke Friday with Germany’s Bild newspaper, defending his reluctance to admit more migrants into the EU through Hungary.
The prime minister said Syrian refugees already had a safe place to stay in the refugee camps surrounding Syria, and maintained that those coming to Europe were not in fact seeking safety but instead just a better living standard.
He said each country in the EU should contribute an additional 1 percent to the EU budget, to be gleaned from spending cuts elsewhere to make up a $3.4 billion aid package to give to Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
He also blamed refugees’ failure to follow rules on Germany’s announcement that it would accept thousands of applications for asylum, in what he said was a break from EU policy. He said that announcement caused a revolt among asylum-seekers waiting to register in Hungary.
Orban also said a quota of refugees to be allocated to each EU nation made no sense unless Europe’s borders were closed, because otherwise it would be impossible to know how many refugees needed placement. He said the stream of incoming people would continue as long as the borders were open.
Austria’s Faymann told Der Spiegel that Orban was acting “irresponsibly” when he maintained that all the refugees were economic ones. He said Austria, Germany and Sweden — the countries that have been the most welcoming to the current influx of people — recognize that the migrants are war refugees and stand by their right to asylum.
On Friday at a meeting in Prague, the foreign ministers of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia refused entreaties by their counterparts from Germany and Luxembourg to accept the mandatory quotas, despite the plan’s endorsement by the United Nations.
The plan allows for the distribution of 160,000 migrants among the 28 EU member nations.
“We need to have control over how many [migrants] we are capable of accepting,” said Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, host of the gathering.
Denmark declines plan
Denmark also announced Friday that it would not absorb any of 160,000 asylum seekers. “We have taken our share,” Integration Minister Inger Stojberg said.
More than 3,000 migrants arrived in Denmark this week, though most had indicated they were en route to friendlier Sweden.
The dissension prompted the European Council’s president, Donald Tusk, to say Friday that he would call a summit of EU leaders this month unless their ministers could agree Monday on how the bloc should cope with the migrant surge.
Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) voiced support for the EU distribution plan but also noted that by year’s end the EU would have to relocate 200,000 refugees from the front-line countries of Greece, Italy and Hungary.
The U.N. called for the immediate establishment of large-scale reception centers in those countries.
The UNHCR also welcomed Washington’s offer to accept 10,000 more refugees and increase its humanitarian assistance to Syrians fleeing violence at home. But it said “the United States could and should do more.”
More on U.S. plan
The United States has taken in about 1,500 refugees from Syria since its civil war broke out more than four years ago.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president approved accepting more of the refugees beginning in October.
The White House promised “robust” background checks on the new arrivals to ensure that national security is not endangered. U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper said this week that he feared Islamic State militants might infiltrate the refugees escaping conflict in the Mideast as they head to other countries.
(Photo: Tomislav Georgiev/UNICEF)