BERLIN — With Germany promising to make room for up to 500,000 new refugees a year, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged neighbors Tuesday to expand havens for desperate asylum seekers even as Europe remains divided over the spiraling migrant crisis.
Germany’s increasingly open-door policies reflect just one side of the struggle to handle the latest waves of migrants, including many from violence-battered Iraq and Syria. Other nations have moved in the other direction, seeking to block borders or push migrants ahead to the next country.
The escalating humanitarian crisis has sharply tested European cooperation and fundamental policies such as open frontiers and tolerance for the mainly Muslim newcomers.
Speaking in Berlin, Merkel and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven backed a quota system for asylum seekers to be shared among the 28 nations of the European Union — a plan expected to be further outlined on Wednesday.
But several nations remain deeply opposed to a quota and have blamed countries such Germany and Sweden for generous asylum policies they claim entice migrants to make the risky trips to reach European shores.
A joint statement last week by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland called the quota proposal unacceptable. On Tuesday, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, claimed some European leaders were locked in a “closed circle” by seeking stopgap solutions rather than plotting long-term strategies to ease the migrant flow.
Germany, Europe’s top economic power, is taking in the largest number of asylum seekers, with smaller Sweden taking in the largest per capita.
“We should be clear and to the point,” Merkel said. “I am deeply convinced that this is task that will decide whether we maintain our European values. The entire world is watching us.”
Merkel’s comments came after her vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, braced Germans for what could be half a million refugees a year for “several years.”
“I believe we could surely deal with something on the order of half a million for several years,” Gabriel told broadcaster ZDF late Monday night.
The crush of migrants, meanwhile, showed no signs of easing.
A ship crammed with thousands of migrants docked in the Greek port of Piraeus near Athens. Greek authorities also rushed to send help to the island of Lesbos off the Turkish coast, where 20,000 migrants have been growing increasingly frustrated by the long wait in squalid conditions for a ferry to the mainland.
Further up the route traveled by the majority of migrants entering the continent, a record 7,000 Syrians reached the Greek border with Macedonia, the U.N. refugee agency reported Tuesday. Greek television broadcast chaotic scenes as migrants struggled to cross.
And on the border between Hungary and Serbia, migrants slept in an open field after clashing with police the day before. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who ousted his defense minister late Monday over a missed deadline for building a border fence, told the newspaper Magyar Idok that the government would speed up construction.
Gabriel said other European nations need to do more to address the crisis, even as Britain and France — two nations criticized for not doing enough — pledged to take in tens of thousands of asylum seekers.
Germany — the nation taking in the lion’s share, an estimated 800,000 by year’s end — has continued to lead the way. The government pledged Monday to hire 3,000 more police officers and spend $6.7 billion more to address the crisis, including emergency housing for 150,000 people.
Germany responded to the criticism Monday by announcing a reduction in cash handouts for asylum seekers during their initial months of processing, instead saying it would offer them more food stamps and in-kind aid.
Berlin also said it would push to have western Balkan countries such as Kosovo declared “safe” in a bid to weed out the many thousands of migrants now claiming asylum from countries not at war.
The German maneuvers reflected the complex nature of Europe’s migrant crisis, in which desperate Syrians and Iraqis are searching for sanctuary in the wealthy countries of Europe’s core along with a host of economic migrants pouring in from countries as far-flung as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We want to reduce the number of pull factors, and I think it’s a big step forward that we have consensus in our government to reduce the monetary benefits for those seeking asylum,” said Stephan Mayer, a German national lawmaker and home affairs spokesman for the Christian Social Union, part of Merkel’s ruling coalition.
In the crowded refugee centers across this nation of 81 million people, asylum seekers have conceded that they have come to Germany because it is doing more to help than other nations in the region.
Mohammed Mazher Alkilany, 28, a former public relations consultant for the Damascus tourism board who is living in a temporary shelter in east Berlin, said his family of three is living on 233 euros ($260) a month provided by the government — a sum he described as too little to cover the cost of warm clothes and blankets for the coming winter.
But they are also living in free temporary housing in a building outfitted with a playground and rooms with shared kitchens, bathrooms and washing machines. He insisted, though, that he did not come to Germany simply for its generous benefits.
“I came here because Germany is safe; there is no war,” he said. “Germany is the best in Europe. France is no good. You cannot get language classes there. But in Germany you can learn the language for free.”
Although Sweden is offering similar aid, he said it was “too far away, it is very cold, and it is always night there.”
A few European nations have been willing to set up operations to legally and safely bring, for example, Syrian refugees directly from bordering nations such as Turkey and Lebanon. But they have put strict limits on numbers, with all 28 E.U. nations offering just over 53,000 such spots since 2013, according to U.N. figures. That is a drop in the ocean compared with the more than 4 million Syrian refugees.
Instead, European nations have preferred to deal with asylum seekers only at the point when they are politically forced to — after the refugees physically cross their borders. Analysts say accepting asylum seekers directly from their home or bordering countries would reduce the impetus to make the perilous voyage to Europe’s shores but that there is little political support for this approach.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Monday that Britain would resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from the Middle East over the next five years — a figure equal to the number of asylum seekers Germany took in over the weekend.
Cameron, however, said Britain was nevertheless acting with “head and heart” by accepting refugees only from camps around the Syrian border, while seemingly taking a jab at nations such as Germany for encouraging illegal trips by accepting so many.
“We want to encourage people not to make that dangerous crossing in the first place,” Cameron said.
Up to now, Britain has resettled only 216 Syrian refugees through its government program.
The scant opportunities to obtain visas on the ground near the Syrian conflict were dramatized by the drowning death last week of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had family in Canada but whose parents had been unable to get family reunification visas that would have given them a legal route out of Turkey. Instead, they tried to reach Greece by boat, with tragic consequences.
“We would prefer that no refugee would have to take that dangerous journey to have to reach safety in Europe,” said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Under a European Commission proposal to be released Wednesday, reception camps would be set up in Italy, Greece and Hungary to route new arrivals to other European countries. That could eliminate most of the risky overland legs of the journey. But the incentives to set sail from Turkey, Libya or Egypt would remain.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels and Witte reported from Budapest. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.