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Oct 29, 2015 | 09:30 GMT

Why Germany Cannot Stop the Flow of Migrants

(CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Germany will not be able to compel Greece or Turkey to stem the flow of migrants without jeopardizing other, more pressing priorities.
  • Winter will lower the number of arrivals, giving the European Union room to strategize and negotiate.
  • Ongoing fighting in Syria means that the surge in arrivals will likely pick up again in 2016.

A massive wave of migration has been sweeping Europe for much of 2015 as hundreds of thousands of people arrive from conflict-ridden parts of the globe. The European Union is still struggling to find a way to stem the flow or adapt. Germany, as both a major migrant destination and EU leader, has led the effort. On Oct. 25, a selection of European leaders gathered in Brussels to discuss the crisis, including representatives of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. Non-EU members Macedonia and Serbia also took part. The summit was the latest attempt to come to a consensus on a solution to the problem and contain the resulting political fallout.

Of course, the Continent has always struggled to deal with the arrival of new immigrants. Peninsular Europe sits at the westernmost edge of the massive Eurasian landmass, which encompasses the Middle East and is closely connected to Africa. New arrivals have often taxed the Continent's naturally fragile geopolitical balance. In antiquity, for example, the influx of nomads off the Central Asian steppe precipitated the end of another Continental bloc — the Roman Empire. The European Union has had to deal with this challenge since its inception. The unprecedented surge over the past 10 months, however, has called into question current domestic political arrangements as well as the structure of the entire bloc.

Routes of Tension

Ultimately, it has been the sheer number of migrants this year and the shift in arrival routes that have led to deeper structural problems. In 2014, the primary route into Europe was across the Mediterranean from the south. Migrants traveled in boats of up to 800 passengers from the North African coast to Italy and Malta, the so-called southern route. In 2014, 170,000 people took this journey, the vast majority from African countries, with 25 percent (around 42,000) coming from Syria. So far in 2015, volumes on this route have remained much the same, with the number of migrants holding relatively steady at around 139,000. The one key difference, however, is that Syrians now make up just 5 percent of the total.

But while the Italian route has been relatively static, migration along the alternative eastern route has surged. In past years, the journey began with a walk over the land border between Turkey and Greece. New arrivals would then either remain in Greece or continue into Europe through the Balkans.

In 2014, this route brought in less than one-third the number of migrants than the north-south route — only 51,000. The majority were Syrians fleeing the civil war. However, tough Greek government regulations on illegal immigration have kept the number of new arrivals low. Athens' policies even spurred Amnesty International to issue complaints and several European countries to stop returning migrants to Greece over fears of human rights abuses. Athens has also been notoriously inefficient at processing asylum applications, with many asylum seekers languishing in camps for up to 18 months. Furthermore, in 2012 a fence was erected on the border between Turkey and Greece, forcing migrants to take flimsy inflatable boats from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands or travel north to the Bulgarian border. In 2014, Bulgaria began building its own fence to prevent this.

This year, however, the number of arrivals through Greece has risen to 530,000. The sea traffic across the narrow straits between Turkish coastal towns such as Izmir and Bodrum, and Greek islands such as Lesbos and Kos, has gradually increased. In September 2015 alone, 156,000 immigrants took the eastern route compared to just 7,000 in the same month the previous year. Of this tidal wave of migrants, 66 percent are Syrian, 21 percent are Afghan and the rest are mainly from Iraq and Pakistan.

After landing on the Greek islands, the migrants make their way to a nearby port and register with authorities before boarding the first available ferry to Athens. From there, most of them go north to Thessaloniki and then up through Macedonia to Serbia. (In each country, authorities issue papers allowing them to transit for 72 hours.) These arrivals are mostly bound for Germany and in the past arrived there from Hungary and Austria. The borderless Schengen area makes things easier once the migrants have entered Hungary or Slovenia. But new fences have created a bottleneck. In early July, Hungary began building a fence on its Serbian border, forcing the migrants west through Croatia, often entering Hungary from there. The government built a second fence on the Croatian border in October, pushing people up to Slovenia, which is small (2 million people) and has struggled to manage the massive flows through its territory.

Behind the Surge

To find the source of this surge, one must begin with Turkey — the starting point for immigrants into Greece and Bulgaria. Turkey is also home to the largest Syrian refugee population: 2 million people live in Turkish cities trying to eke out a living or in camps along the Syrian border. The refugee population has steadily grown in Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian civil war but spiked suddenly in October 2014 from 840,000 to 1.5 million in the course of three months. That month marked the Islamic State siege of Kobani on the border of Turkey and Syria. The fighting pushed around 400,000 Syrians into Turkey.

Kobani was certainly one factor that drove the surge into Europe, but another factor has been the Turkish economy. Many Syrians living in Turkey have been able to make a living only because of temporary employment or casual labor. This is largely in the informal sector, since Turkey has rejected requests to issue Syrians with work permits. But the Turkish economy has begun to deteriorate, and Ankara is now struggling with capital flight triggered by shifting global trends. The lira has weakened and since 2012, Turkish unemployment has crept upward, making it difficult for the Syrians to get by.

Kobani and Turkish economic troubles have also coincided with an easing in Greece's formerly hostile migrant policies. International attention has been transfixed on the left-wing Syriza government's economic strategy and tussles with the European Union, but fewer have noted Athens' changing approach to migration. During the previous administration, the opposition Syriza party had been a vocal critic of the 2012 Operation Xenios Zeus. The measure, designed to seek out illegal immigrants using ethnic profiling, led to a number of arrests and widespread immigration detention. When Syriza came to power in January 2015, the party declared the end of the operation and spent several months shutting down internment camps and releasing detainees. This made Greece a considerably less hazardous place for migrants. Syriza has simultaneously focused on sending migrants quickly onward into the rest of Europe instead of hanging onto them.

As migrants began to realize that this eastern path was open, they passed information to others, increasing the flow. There is no sign that this has an end — the latest fighting in Aleppo, Syria, has displaced an estimated 50,000 people relatively close to the Turkish border who will almost certainly try to move on.

The Consequences

The massive influx of migrants has undermined so many existing EU immigration agreements that some are unlikely to survive in their current form. The Dublin agreement, which stipulates that the member country of entry must fingerprint and take responsibility for new arrivals, is one such agreement that has been ignored many times. Consequently, tensions have cropped up across the Continent: between Germany and Austria, between Hungary and its neighbors as well as within the Balkans. The last of these is particularly concerning because of the recent history of ethnic conflict.

And politically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suffered the most. When migrants began to arrive in large numbers over the summer, she announced publicly that they were to be welcomed rather than turned away. This stance sparked opposition, most problematically from within her own Christian Democratic Union and its sister Christian Social Union in Bavaria, which has been the point of entry for many immigrants arriving from Austria.

Problematic Solutions

To ensure her continued leadership in Germany — and the European Union as a whole — Merkel has been searching for a solution to the migrant crisis. But the way forward is not clear. One thought was to try to attack the problem at its source by ending the civil war in Syria. This is much easier said than done — Russia recently entered the fray, complicating a battlefield already divided among multiple players with radically different motivations. From Germany's perspective, this is not a viable approach.

Another component has been to move one link further up the chain and request Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cooperation to stop the flow of migrants. Merkel tried this tack over the course of several meetings with Erdogan in October. Turkey's price, however, was quite high. Erdogan asked for 3 billion euros ($3.31 billion), the relaxation of visa restrictions on Turkish travel in Europe and a jump-start to Turkey's EU accession.

Berlin could likely raise the money, but the other two conditions are more difficult. Germany is home to the vast majority of past Turkish immigrants into Europe, and tensions have long been high over the issue. The head of the Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, has a history of publicly arguing against Turkish accession into the European Union to appeal to local sentiments. With Seehofer's party at the root of Merkel's domestic problems over the current surge, a solution that mitigates this issue but brings in more Turkish migrants would simply replace one problem with another. EU member state Cyprus has a historically fraught relationship with Turkey and has opposed accession as well. Merkel has hit a wall.

This brings Germany another step along the route to Greece, which could hypothetically return to the draconian measures of the previous administration to discourage migration. But Berlin would find it difficult to call for such a move. Greece's immigration policies were roundly criticized on human rights grounds. If Merkel called for this publicly, she would likely face a backlash — not least of all from Syriza. More important, if Germany were to ask a favor from Greece, Syriza would be able to use this as a bargaining chip. Berlin spent the first half of 2015 forcing Athens to adopt economic reform; the last thing Merkel wants to do is give Athens an excuse to delay. Nevertheless, at the Oct. 25 summit, Greece was asked to set up facilities that could hold 50,000 immigrants with support from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. There is some room for agreement here — Greece is not alone in coping with these issues, and there are plans to send EU staff to the border. 

After the migrants leave Greece, it becomes harder for Germany to contain the problem. From Merkel's perspective, even if the flow of migrants cannot be stopped immediately, sharing them around Europe will alleviate some of Germany's burden. The Syrians have a particularly strong case for asylum, and it is extremely hard to repatriate them. The European Union wants to keep the Balkan countries from confronting one another over migrant flows. At the same time, the bloc wants to keep borders within Europe as open as possible to preserve the union's structure while apportioning them fairly across the Continent. This means overcoming negativity among member countries. Several European summits already this year have been devoted to trying to establish a quota system, but Eastern European countries have strongly resisted. The Oct. 25 summit likely discussed all of the possible solutions along the migrant route.

The coming months could offer some relief even if Germany cannot find a solution. As winter approaches and temperatures drop, it is likely that the immigrant flow will begin to slow. The European Union, however, will have to be careful to prevent deaths among those who do cross the frozen Balkans. The latest flows have also revealed a drop in the portion of migrants from Syria and a rise in Afghan and African migrants, partly because of cheap Turkish Airlines flights to North Africa. Unlike Syrians, authorities will find it much easier to send back migrants from these points of origin. Of course, the cold weather will abate as spring approaches, and with Syria's civil war giving no sign of ending soon, 2016 will most likely see the migrant crisis continue.

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