Flies in the ointment of Germany’s refugee policy
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Flies in the ointment of Germany’s refugee policy

Angela Merkel has won praise in the international press after showing moral leadership in the refugee crisis. But this has masked the German government’s efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers.

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Angela Merkel is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the international press for her stance on refugees, which effectively canceled out all the “EU dictator” headlines her government attracted during the Greek debt crisis.

And yet the same European Union countries – especially in Eastern Europe – that supported Germany’s hard-line leadership on Greece are now griping about her demands for uniform rules on refugee policy throughout the bloc.

Against the attitudes of the UK and Hungarian governments, Germany’s reception of refugees this week – and the spontaneous public generosity displayed at Munich’s railway station – has looked incomparably humane.

The decision not to deport anyone from Syria back to any EU country – effectively disabling the Dublin agreement – was hailed by many as an urgent and necessary signal to other European countries, while on social media, the estimate that Germany will receive some 800,000 asylum applications this year has been used by people to campaign for similar action at home:

Likewise, images of refugees chanting “Germany, Germany!” at Budapest station, carrying pictures of Merkel, or even naming their children after the German chancellor, have all left a glow around the German government.

Flaws in the plan

But the overwhelming positivity has masked flaws in Germany’s refugee system and the overall situation for refugees in Germany. Local councils throughout Germany remain overburdened, sometimes resulting in health crises last month when asylum seekers were forced to wait in extreme summer heat.

Even earlier this week, there were ugly stand-offs between police and refugees outside the state registration authorities in Berlin, where hundreds of asylum seekers had to wait for over a week to file their asylum applications, while administrative officials were working double shifts to process the forms.

Some refugees carried pictures of Merkel as they attempted to leave Hungary on foot
“Of course, that leads to hygiene problems, problems with the water supply. We have extreme medical problems,” Laszlo Hubert of the local public initiative Moabit Hilft (“Moabit Helps”) told “Der Spiegel” magazine. “If a woman has to wait with her child for ten days outside the door, then she could well get angry.” Even now, the grassroots work of the general public groups is preventing a humanitarian disaster.

Despite well over a year of media coverage of the problem and local council pressure, the federal government only agreed to increase funding for asylum procedures to local governments in June, when it doubled the budget to one billion euros ($1.1 billion). Even then, well before the current spike in arrivals, the figure was criticized as too small.

Now, the financial burden may have to be doubled again. According to a report in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” daily, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told a meeting of party colleagues earlier this week that the federal government may need to contribute 3 billion euros to cope with the current influx – significantly more than the 2 billion his Social Democratic Party is currently suggesting.

Double strategy

Meanwhile, the policy of the Bavarian government – run by the Christian Social Union, sister-party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – remains rigidly committed to separating what it considers “economic migrants” from war refugees. In the same week that the people of Munich handed out water and fruit and clothes to thousands of people arriving at its central station regardless of their nationality, Bavarian Social Affairs Minister Emilia Müller opened the country’s first one-stop reception and deportation center for people arriving from the Balkan region – countries it considers “safe.” Müller, like the German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, admitted that they hoped that opening the center would discourage other Serbians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Albanians, and Kosovans from trying to gain asylum in Germany.

The new reception and deportation center was opened in Ingolstadt, Bavaria this week
Equally, at the height of this week’s crisis in Munich, the German government persuaded the Italian authorities to temporarily re-instate border controls to stop refugees, a move expressly requested and welcomed by the Bavarian state government.

While Germany is ready to take in more refugees, the Interior Ministry is actively working on ways to reduce the number of asylum seekers, particularly those who have come from safe countries. These include reducing regional powers to delay deportations, and reducing the rights of “tolerated” asylum seekers – those who are appealing against the decision to turn down their applications.

In a detailed statement released Thursday, the pro-asylum group Pro Asyl criticized these measures: “The planned tightening of laws switch between symbolic law-making and structural controls that reverse the progress that has been made,” it said. “This is the wrong signal in a situation where countless volunteers, initiatives, societies and public offices are trying to help refugees. The government should concentrate on building up sustainable reception structures and furthering integration concepts.”