Analysis. The Merkel-led government bristled at the idea, with one socialist leader saying Germany could accept ‘not thousands, but a few hundred children’ as a ‘humanitarian gesture.’

Greens reopen the debate on refugees in Greece, demanding ‘kids out first’

Right before Christmas, there was renewed demand for a Wilkommenpolitik (“Politics of welcoming”), which the Merkel government believed it had exhausted after the “migrant invasion” of the summer of 2015. The co-leader of the Greens called on Germany to immediately welcome the 4,000 minors locked in the refugee camps in Greece—but the Grosse Koalition (Grand Coalition) government signaled this wouldn’t happen, invoking the “lack of immediate danger to life” and the need to find a “solution at the European level.” An entirely imaginary suggestion, since it’s not even on anyone’s agenda.

“We are not expecting to receive unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands,” was the official position from Berlin as summarized on Monday by Federal Deputy Speaker Ulrike Demmer and Interior Minister Steve Alter. The latter also had to admit that “there are no ongoing discussions” among the government coalition about such a possibility, despite the “precarious and unsustainable” situation of the migrant children. The Merkel-led government is quibbling that “the situation is not comparable with rescues at sea.”

However, the SOS launched on Sunday by the co-secretary of the Greens, Robert Habeck, in an interview published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung remained one of the main topics discussed in the news media, and not only.

“Get the kids out first” was the request made by the politician representing the Greens, Germany’s second largest party, which currently commands the support of 22% of voters, according to the Forsa Institute poll from Saturday. Germany could “at least provide immediate help” for the 4,000 minors “in greatest need.”

With this appeal, the co-leader of the Greens started a larger debate, one which the government has been trying to cut short, claiming that “children can and must be helped on the spot,” which is the “quickest and most efficient” way, and that the blame for the situation lies with the “helplessness of the Greek and European authorities,” as the CSU Minister for Economic Development, Gerd Müller, complained in an interview with Passauer Neue Presse.

At the same time, the Christian Democrat deputy Christoph de Vries warned against a situation in which “false incentives are created again that trigger new waves of migration to Germany,” while FDP Secretary General Linda Teuteberg said that “PR campaigns shortly before Christmas do not help to solve the refugee problem responsibly.”

So far, the reaction by the conservatives and liberals has been what one would have expected, made in very clear terms, in contrast to the one from the SPD, in an uncomfortable double role as coalition partners and as a party that has just made a leftward turn with the election of new co-secretaries.

It’s no coincidence that SPD leader Saskia Esken tried to split the difference between loyalty to the government coalition and a broader view that goes beyond the national border, resulting in a muddled message: “We have to improve the situation on the ground, but also allow refugees to be admitted to other member states, and of course children and their families must receive special attention.” 

The position of Boris Pistorius, the SPD Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, was clearer, as he said he was not at all optimistic about the “European solution” being pursued by his party as part of the GroKo, but expressed a willingness to acquiesce in a scaled-down version of what the Greens are demanding: “If everyone always waits for everyone to join in, no one will do anything in the end.” Instead, Germany should accept “not thousands, but a few hundred children” as a “humanitarian gesture.”

That’s significantly less than welcoming all the “many girls, many fragile little people” that Habeck had called for, but it is at least a signal of a Christmas climate that is a little less harsh and more imbued with the traces of a humanitarian spirit. According to Günter Burkhardt, the president of the Pro Asyl NGO, it is “unbearable that thousands of refugee children in Greek slum camps are trembling from the cold, wet and hopeless, while the Christmas holiday mood is coming here.”

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