Growing Refugee Numbers: Germany’s Strain, Europe’s Gain?
Berlin—The unprecedented number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany might be a game changer in reforming Europe’s broken asylum system. The Federal Ministry of the Interior announced in mid-August that it expects 800,000 asylum seekers to make their way to Germany, twice as many as initially projected and four times as many as Germany saw last year. While Greece and Italy have been struggling for years to put migration on the European policy agenda, the difficulties Germany’s states and cities are facing to deal with the incoming refugees is putting pressure on Berlin and leading politicians to make more forceful calls for reforms at the EU level.
Until recently, Germany was happy enough with the EU’s Dublin system, which dictates that asylum claims must be made in the EU country of arrival and thus leaves most of the burden with the EU’s border states. But now that thousands and thousands of asylum seekers are making their way to Germany, Berlin is feeling the squeeze. In the first half of 2015, 179,037 have applied for asylum, and over 100,000 are thought to be in the country waiting to file. If the ministry is right about the 800,000, this would be 10 times as many per capita as France processed last year.
Across Germany, communities are struggling to find housing for incoming migrants, sometimes using school and university gymnasiums, containers, or tents, even in larger cities. In Dresden, 800 people are living in tents and in Hamburg, more than 1,000 refugees are living in a conference hall. The number of new arrivals is also severely straining local schools, day care facilities, and public medical personnel and facilities. In response, the German government has just doubled federal funding to the state and local level to €1 billion for 2015, agreed to change construction and housing laws to expedite refugee housing, and is adding 1,000 jobs to the agency processing asylum claims. It also trying to cut the number of claimants by designating Western Balkan countries, who account for about 40 percent of current asylum claims, as “safe countries of origin” (i.e. as a rule, not eligible for asylum) and instituting a number of other policies to speed up processes and cut costs. But without withdrawing from the Schengen area and reinstating border controls with its EU neighbors to keep out their asylum seekers, there is little more that Germany can do on the national level to reduce the influx of refugees.
While the German government, media, and the majority of the public have handled the announcement of the 800,000 arrivals with remarkable pragmatism, it is inevitable that Germany will push for more EU burden-sharing. Some recent right-wing rumblings, including arson attacks on buildings housing refugees, only raise the pressure on politicians to act. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel explicitly warned that the freedom of movement within the EU may be threatened, and called it a “shame” for Europe that it was not able to establish a more fair distribution mechanisms for refugees.
Calls for a redistribution system on the European level predate the current crisis, and even the last few crisis years and the dramatic death tolls in the Mediterranean have resulted in little change. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposal to introduce binding quotas in April failed dramatically. In a June EU summit, member states could not even agree on non-binding quotas, and pledges to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers already stranded in Italy and Greece were not fully met.
Germany is now aligned with Italy, France, and Greece in demanding that the broken EU asylum system be fixed, and is calling for binding quotas and equal standards for asylum systems in EU member states. The real impact of the crisis on Germany’s communities is creating urgency for reform in Europe. This shift will be hard to achieve, though, as immigration remains a sensitive topic in EU countries and many states remain strongly opposed to a binding system of refugee distribution. Nonetheless, Berlin looks resolved to put all of its considerable political weight behind achieving reforms. Angela Merkel cautioned that the issue of refugees and migrants would “preoccupy Europe much, much more” than Greece or the euro in the years to come. Certainly Berlin will try to make sure this is the case.
Jessica Bither is a program officer and Astrid Ziebarth is a migration fellow in the Berlin office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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