French officials revealed what could prove to be a turning point in the debate over migration: One of the attackers held a Syrian passport and may have entered Europe among this fall’s wave of migrants.
BERLIN — For months, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have marched their way into Europe, fleeing war, poverty and hunger, arriving in such huge numbers that they set off uncommon displays of compassion — and acts of fear.
Even before the Paris attacks Friday, some of the most welcoming Europeans were beginning to lose patience. Borders were closed, benefits cut, warnings issued in Arabic to stay away.
But Saturday, French officials revealed what could prove to be a turning point in the debate over migration: One of the attackers was carrying a Syrian passport, and perhaps more ominously, may have entered Europe along the migrant trail. The passport indicated its owner crossed into Europe through the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3, and authorities were trying to confirm that information.
Poland moved first to shut the door.
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“After Paris, we lost security guarantees,” said Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s new minister for relations with other European nations. He added: “The tragic events in Paris showed weakness in Europe.”
Europe never knew how to deal with the migrants. Greece pushed them to Macedonia. Hungary put up a fence. Austria and Germany welcomed them, for a time. But there was no coordinated strategy for the 28 members of the European Union (EU). The only agreement, after a slew of meetings and other talks, was a plan to distribute 160,000 refugees among all the member states. It was a fraction of the total migrant population, and the agreement was achieved only under intense pressure from Germany.
After Paris, Poland moved toward undoing that deal.
The incoming conservative government in Warsaw quickly criticized the plan, Szymanski wrote in wPolityce.pl, a right-wing journal. “In view of the tragic events in Paris, we do not see the political possibility of executing this policy. Poland must retain full control over its borders.”
Under the relocation plan, Poland would receive only 9,000 migrants, but Szymanski said via email Saturday that Poland would agree to accept them only with “security guarantees,” including a full security check on “every person covered by international protection in Europe” as a precondition.
Not a new strategy
Poland’s determination to scuttle the pact may spread, dooming it even as investigators in Paris are trying to establish the identities and backgrounds of the assailants who killed at least 129 people Friday. It was too soon to say for certain whether all the attackers had links to the refugees from the Syrian conflict, but investigators believe militants have tried to hide among the masses legitimately seeking asylum.
Although the practice appears rare, a French intelligence official said it would not be the first time a militant had joined the stream of migrants arriving in Europe via Turkey and Greece. He said French security services had recently identified one in Calais.
A former senior intelligence official, who is still well-briefed, said: “This is becoming a strategy for them: to embed among the migrants.”
Indeed, the attacks emboldened some politicians who had already voiced fears about the security risks and financial costs of trying to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge in a region with its own economic troubles. Populist and conservative leaders around Europe on Saturday stepped up calls to tighten or shut borders and to halt the flow of migrants, many of them from Syria, where the Islamic State group looms large.
Former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe have insisted their largely homogeneous, impoverished societies cannot cope with a large influx of outsiders, who usually prefer to head for wealthier, more multicultural countries such as Germany, Austria or Sweden. On Saturday, in addition to the criticism from Poland, conservative politicians from Slovakia and populist and nationalist leaders in Western Europe, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, used their denunciations of the Paris violence to bolster calls for keeping migrants out and borders shut.
In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has opposed refugee quotas, announced tightened security on his country’s borders, particularly the one with Ukraine, and insisted: “Everyone who illegally crosses borders must be seen as a security threat.”
After the Paris attacks, he said, his government would watch for signs of right-wing extremism, as well as other forms. He added: “I hope that the events that took place open the eyes of some people now.”
In France, Le Pen did not mention the migrant crisis — although she has opposed admitting more refugees — but she insisted France had to take control of its borders.
“France and the French are no longer safe; it is my duty to tell you so,” she said at a news conference. “Whatever the European Union may say, it is essential that France recover the control of its national borders, once and for all,” she said. “Without borders, neither security nor protection are possible.”
In the Netherlands, the center-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, announced a tightening of border checks. But he declined to heed Wilders’ call for a total shutdown of Dutch borders.
Merkel stands firm
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, found herself increasingly isolated at home and around the continent over her call for protecting refugees fleeing war, poverty and terrorism in the Middle East. In an unusually emotional appearance Saturday, she notably did not change her stance.
“We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror,” Merkel said. “Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”
Even Merkel could not ignore the potential security threat, and so she, too, huddled Saturday with her top security officials. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, who has been at odds with Merkel over curbing the refugee flow, announced tighter monitoring of rail and air links with France and appealed for unity in the face of “barbarous murderers.”
He said German security agencies were keeping a close eye not only on Islamic extremists “but also the far-right extremists who might react to such an attack.”
Germany has recorded more than 500 attacks on shelters for migrants this year.