Germany Rethinks Its Response to the Refugee Crisis

5 MINS READSep 18, 2015 | 12:26 GMT
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border with Serbia
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos on Sept. 16.

The European Union is changing its approach to the refugee crisis. Only a few days ago, discussions among European leaders centered on how they might accommodate the influx of refugees; now their focus has shifted to stemming that flow and restricting entry into the Continental bloc. In the coming days, Europe will implement two kinds of immigration policies to manage the crisis — some that aim to fairly distribute migrants across EU member states, and others intended to reduce the number of asylum seekers making their way to Europe in the first place.

Germany is leading this shift in policy focus. From the start, there have been two elements to Berlin's immigration plan: The first is to fairly distribute asylum seekers across Europe. The second is to work with EU countries along the external borders of the union and with nations in Northern Africa and the Middle East to slow the flow of migrants into Europe. At the same time, Berlin has proposed creating mechanisms to speed up the deportation process for people who do not qualify for asylum.

Initially, Germany focused primarily on the first element, effective resettlement of asylum seekers. When the refugee crisis first erupted, Berlin promised to host an unprecedented number of asylum seekers, and it asked its neighbors to accept mandatory quotas of refugees. Most Germans applauded this move. But Berlin had to reconsider once questions emerged about the financial, political and social viability of the plan. The number of migrants expected to arrive in Germany by the end of this year rose steadily, and Berlin saw strong resistance to mandatory quotas from countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Romania. 

A Change in Focus

These developments prompted a shift in Berlin’s strategy. On Sept. 13, Germany temporarily closed its border with Austria in an attempt to force Central and Eastern European nations to cooperate with the plan to redistribute asylum seekers. The move was also motivated by significant pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel from German municipalities and regional governments to reduce the number of foreigners crossing into the country. The Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union) was particularly insistent that Germany halt the influx of asylum seekers. Berlin’s decision had a domino effect across the union, triggering similar border closures in several countries, including Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

This week, Berlin refocused again, this time narrowing in on migrant transit routes. The German government announced it would work closely with Turkey to prevent asylum seekers from entering the European Union in the first place, and Merkel called for the creation of new migrant intake centers in Italy and Greece. Germany also threw its support behind a plan to provide financial assistance to countries in northern Africa and the Middle East to prevent people from leaving. Starting in October, German ships will also participate in the second phase of an EU naval operation in the Mediterranean that will seize and destroy ships used by human traffickers.

Destinations and Origins of Europe's Asylum Seekers

The justification for these plans echoes the predominate logic in the United Kingdom and in the many Central and Eastern European countries that advocate resolving the refugee crisis by addressing the situation in the countries of origin. Germany’s new approach also involves softening its position toward EU countries that refuse to accept binding quotas. On Sept. 16, Merkel admitted that the German interior minister's recent proposal, which would withhold EU funds to countries that do not participate in the redistribution program, was not viable. 

Europe’s Next Steps

Europe’s ultimate response to the refugee crisis will probably involve a combination of Germany’s two strategies. On one hand, the European Union will eventually approve a plan to redistribute asylum seekers across the Continent, though officials will likely do away with any mandatory quotas. But Germany will also try to make resettlement in Europe less appealing by toughening its asylum policies. For example, Germany will make it harder for some migrants to access asylum benefits, while also making return and repatriation easier for at least for some groups (especially migrants from the Western Balkans, who represent roughly 40 percent of the asylum applications in the European Union). Sporadic border controls will continue to be introduced across the Continent, and numerous European countries will enhance their naval presence in the Mediterranean.

The European Union will probably also provide more funds for countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This will only have a limited impact, because political circumstances in countries such as Libya will deter negotiations. European nations can hope for only moderate success in patrolling the Mediterranean, and the decision to seize boats used by trafficking groups may lead to violent clashes between EU forces and traffickers. In addition, money will not be enough to keep migrants in countries such as Turkey or Lebanon, where asylum seekers looking for jobs encounter legal — and not just financial — barriers.

The European Union has a better chance of stemming the flow of immigrants from countries in the Western Balkans, with which Brussels can negotiate an increase in assistance in exchange for implementing stricter border controls. Given that Albania and Kosovo are among the top five countries of origin for asylum seekers entering the union, this would allow Europe to speed up deportations and to better enable both countries to contain the problem themselves.

These actions will decrease the number of asylum seekers passing into Europe, but they will not stop the process altogether. Northern Europe will remain an attractive destination for migrants, whether they are families fleeing war or simply unemployed workers looking for jobs. War in the Middle East will continue to displace people in the region, and governments in northern Africa will continue to shelter human trafficking organizations. Finally, political differences within the European Union itself will prevent the bloc from standardizing domestic asylum policies. Migrants will continue to prefer more welcoming nations and will avoid those with tighter asylum regulations or those that provide little in the way of assistance to new arrivals.

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