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Angela Merkel meets UN refugee, migration heads

August 11, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged extra money for the world's top refugee and migrant advocates. While far fewer asylum seekers are now reaching Germany, new fronts in Europe's migration crisis are opening.

Angela Merkel, Filippo Grandi und  William Lacy Swing at a press conference in Berlin
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General William Lacy Swing met Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday. It was one of her first appointments after returning from her summer break.

Merkel pledged up to 50 million euros from Germany to the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the IOM by the end of this year to support their work with refugees and migrants in Libya, the launch point for many who cross the Mediterranean to Europe. 

"This work must not fail for financial reasons," Merkel said, adding that the root causes of migration needed to be addressed.

The talks occured in the midst of both her German election campaign and a global displacement crisis in which more than 65 million people have fled their homes due to violence and persecution.

At a press conference alongside Merkel, Grandi said that while many of those currently crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe were doing so for economic reasons, about 20 to 30 percent of them were in need of international protection as refugees.

Destination for migrants

Merkel intends to avoid a repeat of 2015 and 2016 when more than a million people, many fleeing war but also economic migrants, arrived in Germany to seek refuge. Most had to use people smugglers for at least parts of their journeys. In the summer of 2015 Merkel temporarily halted the standard EU practice of forcing asylum seekers to return to the first EU member state they set foot in, a move which ultimately prompted many to take the so-called "Balkan route" by land from Greece towards Germany.

Migrants hold a banner reading "Merkel" in this file photo taken at the Hungary-Serbia border in September 2015
Migrants hold a banner reading 'Merkel' in this file photo taken at the Hungary-Serbia border in September 2015Image: Reuters/M. Djurica

Read more: Could migration derail Merkel re-election express?

While arrivals to Germany slowed dramatically last year following the introduction of tighter border controls and a refugee deal with Turkey to stop traffickers sending boats across the Aegean to Greece, the problem of people using illegal and dangerous methods attempting to reach Europe persists. 

According to a briefing released by the International Organization for Migration on Friday, almost 117,800 migrants and refugees have arrived by sea to Europe so far this year. More than 2,400 people who attempted the journey are dead or missing. The death rate is one in 36.

Border countries struggling

Italy has sounded the alarm that it is struggling to cope after more than 96,000 migrants landed there so far this year alone, mostly having been rescued on the central Mediterranean route after setting out from Libya on unseaworthy smugglers' boats. Rome has attempted to lessen the number of arrivals by boosting the Libyan coastguard and launching a code of conduct for NGOs performing search and rescue missions.

Spain is set to surpass Greece in the number of migrants arriving by sea this year, the IOM said Wednesday. Almost 8,200 people had arrived in Spain by August 6 of this year, more than three times as many recorded at the same time last year.

Read more: Refugees living in limbo

Joel Millman, a senior IOM spokesman, said it appeared many of those trying to reach Spain were choosing the route to avoid crossing through Libya, and that there were differences in smugglers' tactics.

Inside Europe: Jumping the fence in North Africa

"[in Libya] there appears to be a very deliberate strategy to put people out there, in overloaded boats that begin to take on water almost immediately and then it's a race to see how quickly the people on the boat can summon aid," he said. "Whereas in Spain, the strategy is smaller craft hoping to come in undetected, and undoubtedly some do."

Some of those vessels included toy boats and jet skis.

The number recorded by IOM does not include the boat full of migrants who landed on a southern Spanish beach on Wednesday, or those crossing by land in to Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish territories in northern Morocco which are the EU's only land borders with Africa. Both are surrounded by six-meter-tall (20-foot) barbed wire fences, which each year thousands of migrants try to scale. On Thursday, Spain reported that about 700 people tried unsuccessfully to storm the border crossing between Morocco and Ceuta.

se/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)