Refugee Policy Closing the Door Softly

Angela Merkel’s “We can do it!” still sets the tone for Germany’s policy on asylum. But through subtle, less-publicized moves, she has begun backtracking on Germany's open-arms welcome of refugees, bowing to political pressure.
merkel new image source miriam migliazzi mart klein


Under pressure in Germany, Angela Merkel is reversing course and slowing the flow of refugees into the country.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s frequently understated demeanor is often mistaken for apathy. In no facet of her governance is this perception more misplaced than in her asylum policy.

With her open-door approach to Europe’s unprecedented refugee crisis under fire from a growing chorus of skeptics across the German political spectrum, Ms. Merkel finds herself more isolated than ever. She appears to be weakened, Germany’s silent, wounded chancellor.

Behind the scenes, she is quietly setting the course for a major policy reversal – although Ms. Merkel would never call it that. Officially, her motto remains: “We can do it!” But she is planning to do things differently.

Rather than making a public show of admitting she was wrong, as some of her critics would no doubt prefer, the chancellor’s new strategy consists of small, but effective measures to limit the tide of refugees into Germany, which hit 1.1 million last year alone.

Ms. Merkel is likely to take stock of her open-door policy following a European Council meeting in Brussels in mid-February. Should the influx of refugees into Germany remain unabated, expect a series of aggressive new steps in the following weeks and months.


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Shrinking Schengen

In Ms. Merkel's ideal world, refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries arrive in Greece and dutifully register with local authorities. Germany accepts its share, focusing on those refugees who seem to be the perfect fit for the country's needs.

But ideal and reality are worlds apart.

The constant, chaotic stream of asylum seekers into the European Union is anything but orderly. The reality of the situation is putting Europe’s 30-year-old, 26-nation open-border Schengen agreement to the test.

Sweden, Austria and several other E.U. member states have already made their de facto Schengen exits by re-erecting controls at their borders. Since September, temporary controls exist on Germany’s borders too, focusing on Bavaria’s border with Austria.


Quelle: dpa
gabriel merkel 28 jan source dpa
(Source: dpa)


To reach the Balkan route north to Germany, most migrants enter the European Union via Greece from Turkey. According to the European Commission, some 30,000 refugees have traversed this route so far this year.

Given Greece’s lax controls, European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis this week told journalists in Brussels that the country had “seriously neglected its obligations” under Schengen.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner called for a “civil commando” to police the European Union's porous Greek borders. If that doesn’t work, Europe’s borders would “move in the direction of Central Europe,” she warned.

Against this backdrop of rising concern, an official within Germany’s right-left ruling coalition government, who declined to be named, said: “We will fight for Schengen as long as possible, but only as long as possible.”

If it comes to this, Chancellor Merkel sees the E.U.’s exterior border moving inward from Greece to Austria and Slovenia. Greece would remain an E.U. member, but free Schengen movement would effectively shrink, excluding Greece.


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Police Reinforcements

The massive wave of refugees entering Germany has ebbed with the onset of winter to about 2,000 per day. With spring expected to bring another strong surge, reinforcements for Germany’s police force may be on the way.

According to Germany’s police union, 2,000 police officers are currently deployed in the country's border regions. Heiko Teggatz, vice chair of the federal police union, says the force is exhausted after logging 2 million hours of overtime since September.

Re-erecting border controls under the existing police contingent is not an option, the police union said, because new officers must first be hired and trained. Moreover, hundreds of German federal police are on loan to other countries such as Slovenia and Greece.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who recently extended temporary border checks to February 13, disagrees with the police union's assessment. The federal police force is adequately prepared for such a task, he has argued.

The federal government has committed to hiring 3,000 new border police over three years. But as New Year’s attacks on women in Cologne exposed, more police presence is desperately needed not just on the borders but internally in Germany, at train stations, airports and sports stadiums.

Chancellor Merkel is ready to bring on new recruits, but has not committed to a concrete number yet.


Quelle: Getty Images
Syrian refugee children at a center entering Passau, Germany, near the Austrian border, on Wednesday. About 2,000 refugees are still pouring into Germany each day.


Funding Refugee Shelters

Millions of Syrians fled to neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where many live in squalor. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is trying to prevent the worst by providing for their basic needs.

Ms. Merkel is also committed to helping create more humane conditions in these refugee camps – in part to stem the flow of their residents to Europe – by offering the U.N. refugee agency financial assistance.

The agency’s Syrian donor conference in London next Thursday is a big opportunity to raise funds for refugee camps. The German government, a co-organizer of the event, is partially responsible for making sure the conference meets its funding goals.


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Aid organizations have their hands full in dealing with some 4.6 million Syrians who have taken refuge in neighboring countries amid the civil war. Some of these countries are doing little to help.

After appealing for $8.4 billion in donations last year, the U.N.-led effort has current funding of only $3.3 billion, leaving a huge deficit. Ms. Merkel apparently has been busy trying to fill it – in line with her view that refugees are best served close to home.

Last year, Germany contributed about $344 million, making it the second-largest donor after the United States. This year, Ms. Merkel has succeeded in convincing President Barack Obama to pitch in another $1 billion, according to government sources.


Quelle: Reuters
Refugees waiting to be processed on Friday at an intake center in Berlin's Spandau district.
(Source: Reuters)


Paying Turkey

With so many refugees fleeing to Turkey – the stepping-stone to Europe – the country is playing a key role in managing the refugee crisis.

Ms. Merkel has committed to footing the bill for Italy’s share of the €3 billion ($3.3 billion) the E.U. promised Turkey in November. Ms. Merkel ponied up for Italy to make the deal possible and raise the chances that Turkey actively slows the migration of refugees across the Mediterranean to Greece.

But delivering the aid to Turkey has been delayed as E.U. countries, especially those in eastern Europe, balk at contributing. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier this week warned of dire consequences in a meeting with E.U. ministers Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn. Mr. Hahn said the E.U. would closely watch to ensure Ankara was doing its part to reduce the refugee flow.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding out for more concessions from the European Union, which has for years refused to admit his country as a member. Mr. Erdogan wants loosened travel restrictions for Turks traveling to the European Union. And of course, he wants tangible progress in the deadlocked negotiations to admit his country to the 28-nation bloc.


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Legalized Migration

Could Germany pass a law legalizing migration? A large bloc of the Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, including her interior minister, and the entire Christian Social Union, oppose this notion. Conservatives would rather put the money into education than helping ease the flow of immigrants into Germany.

But the refugee crisis has shown that new challenges call for new solutions.

Many migrants are not seeking asylum, but economic opportunity. But the tens of thousands of refugees are being forced through the country's asylum process – which inevitably will reject a majority of applicants. Legalizing immigration would let many enter Germany’s labor force, which because of low birth rates could certainly use them.


A Syrian boy eating a ration of potatoes at a refugee camp in northern Iraq on January 24. Germany and the European Union want to give Turkey €3 billion in aid to help care for Syrian refugees, but the deal has faltered as some E.U. countries, especially those in eastern Europe, balk at paying.


At a convention in December, the CDU voiced support for legalizing immigration into Germany – but not until the next legislative session, which won't begin in earnest until 2018.

In a recent interview with Handelsblatt, ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder characterized the CDU’s inability to pass such a law as a glaring failure. He said he could not understand how Ms. Merkel could delay an immigration law given the pressing problems. Moreover, German industry has long been calling for it.

Ms. Merkel, characteristically, has remained silent on the issue – but the current crisis could force her to break her silence soon. A new immigration law would be a key component of any new strategy and her other cabinet members see it as necessary.


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Development Aid

The best way to stem the flow of refugees into Germany is to improve the living conditions of refugees in their home countries. Ms. Merkel regularly reinforces this idea, drawing attention to addressing the “causes” that force people to seek asylum.

Germany’s 2016 budget includes €7.4 billion for Ms. Merkel’s development minister, Gerd Müller, a member of the CSU. As a percentage of economic output – only 0.4 percent – Germany’s development funding lags behind the U.N.’s target of 0.7 percent.

The best way to stem the flow of refugees into Germany is to improve living conditions in their home countries. Chancellor Merkel regularly reinforces this idea, drawing constant attention to addressing the “causes” that force people to seek asylum.

Mr. Müller wants to make better use of what he has by directing more money to regions with many refugees, such as the Middle East.

At a Syrian donor conference next month, he will propose an “employment alliance” with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to create half a million jobs for refugees in those countries. Mr. Müller estimates the cost at €2 billion.

It is one of many initiatives Ms. Merkel’s development minister has planned. Another key to the plan, agreed on Thursday night, are new German rules barring citizens of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria from receiving asylum. Ms. Merkel's cabinet agreed to designate the countries as "safe,'' removing the key criteria for obtaining asylum.


Quelle: Reuters
Syrian refugees rescued this week near the Greek island of Oinousses by a European frontier patrol.
(Source: Reuters)


E.U. Refugee Tax

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, together with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, have floated the idea of imposing an E.U.-wide gasoline tax to fund Europe’s refugee crisis.

Germany's CDU, which has promised voters no new taxes, promptly rejected the idea. The gas tax has failed to gain traction in other parts of the European Union too, with only Greece’s finance minster openly backing Mr. Schäuble’s idea.

“Fresh money is required,” Euklid Tsakalotos, the Greek minister, said.

Even Mr. Juncker last week declined to say if he formally supported the idea. But he did say it was good that the German finance minister was searching for a new money source to deal with the refugee crisis.

Germany's coalition government plans to revisit the issue of how to pay for the cost of refugee benefits and services after three state elections in March. The chancellor is fundamentally open to having the conversation, according to sources.


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Workforce Integration

Rags to riches: That was the American Dream. The promise of going from dishwasher to millionaire lured millions to the United States.

Today many refugees are pursuing the German Dream, a shiny vision under which Germany’s social market economy offers educated refugees the opportunity to climb socially and become a member of society at large.

But for many, the realization that the German Dream is just as much of a myth as the American Dream has finally set in.

“The Syrian doctor is not the normal case,” said Labor Minister Andrea Nahles, a Social Democrat, when was asked about employment opportunities for refugees.

The research arm of the German Federal Employment Agency estimates that, at best, 8 to 12 percent of asylum seekers will find jobs in their first year.

The German Federal Employment Agency estimates that only 8 to 12 percent of asylum seekers will find jobs in Germany in a year.

That is in partly because they are barred from working in the country during their first three months in Germany. In the first 15 months, the labor agency checks to see if a native German or E.U. citizen can fulfill the same job. If so, it’s tough luck for the refugee.

These are just some of the hoops refugees must jump through to integrate into the Germany economy.

In December, Ms. Nahles presented a 12-point paper on integration to help smooth their transition – the core of which includes a proposal to link language and job training courses. The plan also includes creating 100,000 new jobs in the secondary labor market, somehow.

Integration isn’t only about employment – but it’s a good place to start.


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Rights for Families

On the question of what to do about extending asylum to refugees' families left behind, one figure says a lot: 67,000.

That’s the number of minors who have come to Germany alone without parents or relatives. It goes without saying that they want to see their parents as soon as possible – if they are still alive. German law accommodates them in such cases.

But does it allow for the families of adult asylum seekers to come as well?

Not unconditionally, according to Germany’s coalition government, because that could lead to another wave of immigration.

Ms. Merkel (CDU), Horst Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian CSU, and Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany's Social Democrats, agreed in November to temporarily suspend this right for refugees who have no chance of asylum. Although their families may not come, they may stay, for instance, if sending them home would put them at risk of torture or death.

Whether that exception applies to Syrians remains a matter of debate.


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Despite the disappointments and problems, Ms. Merkel continues to search for a European solution to the refugee crisis.

Unilateral decisions by E.U. countries are not the way to go, she said: “We need the European Union in its entirety.”

Ms. Merkel said E.U. “legal quotas” are possible.

The outcome of the debate could affect the future of the Schengen bloc.

Mr. Gabriel's Social Democrats support the idea, but Ms. Merkel's own Christian Democrats are not sold.


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Sven Afhüppe is Handelsblatt’s editor in chief and Gabor Steingart is the president and chief executive officer of Handelsblatt Publishing Group, which includes Handelsblatt, Handelsblatt Global Edition and WirtschaftsWoche, Germany's leading weekly business magazine. To contact the authors: [email protected][email protected]