Refugee Policy

The Human Limit

dpatopbilder Refugees from Syria in line to enter a refugee camp at Idomeni village, Greece, in order to cross the Greek-Macedonian border on the 25th of January 2016. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Refugees and migrants need more information about what they will face.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Germany and Europe as a whole faces huge political, social, economic and humanitarian challenges sparked by the hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking refuge on the continent.
  • Facts


    • Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch, top politicians in the anti-immigrant right-wing Alternative for Germany party, recently suggested use of firearms against refugees.
    • Chancellor Angela Merkel has begun backtracking on Germany’s open-arms refugee policy as she bows to political pressure.
    • Last year, 1.1 million refugees and migrants reached Germany. The flood of people to the continent has also created political fractures within the European Union.
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The debate about the refugee influx took a murderous turn when Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch of the right-wing populous political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) gave the rhetorical order to fire on refugees.

The discussion about immigrants in Germany seems to have lost control. It might be a coincidence that at almost the same moment, for the first time, a live grenade was thrown at a refugee center. But it fits – deaths will be acceptable, even factored in, to further incite the German population.

It’s now all the more important to keep a space open between the policies of the German federal government and the right-extremists’ strategic fantasies of violence, to weigh options, to discuss control strategies.

These need to go beyond mere urging for a European solution which is nothing more than the eternal repetition of empty words like “upper limit” but leaves the fundamental principle untouched: Nobody in Europe will shoot at people coming to us in the hope of help.

Such thought isn’t only necessary for practical reasons but certainly also for political hygiene. Nothing drives people away from moderate political parties, away from democracy, faster than saying there’s only one possible way to handle a situation.

“There is no region in the world that has such difficulties protecting its borders than Europe.”

Demetrios Papademetriou, Past-President, Washington-based Migration Policy Institute

So what would a strategy look like that doesn’t even consider the order to shoot as a possibility – yet promises success at the same time? Let’s try a mental experiment. It’s tentative and lacking in detail but that’s no reason not to try.

It isn’t, in and of itself, amoral to secure borders, even to close them. On the contrary, it’s normal; practically every country in the world does it and most with success.

“There is no region in the world that has such difficulties protecting its borders than Europe,” Demetrios Papademetriou, the distinguished past-president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, recently told German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. “I am shocked every time I speak with officials or politicians in Brussels that they are convinced they can do nothing to influence the migratory movements of people.”

What’s more, German President Joachim Gauck recently declared a control strategy could even be morally and politically “imperative in order to maintain the state’s capacity to act.” And “it’s also imperative to make sure most people say refugees should get a humanitarian reception.”

For now, fences are the main objection, as lawyer Mehmet Daimagüler recently said on the TV talk show “Anne Will”: Fences inevitably lead “somewhere to it ending up in an order to shoot.” That’s a bold prediction, to put it mildly. There isn’t even any shooting on the militarily-guarded fence between Mexico and the United States, and just as little around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.

Mr. Daimagüler’s dramatic escalation is revealing. It’s a small-scale illustration of people are thinking on a bigger scale, not least of all in the chancellor’s office. It’s like a domino theory that runs something like this: Should Germany decide to close its borders, all the countries along the Balkans route would follow suit – first Austria, then Slovenia, all the way down to Macedonia and Greece. According to the theory, military conflicts would then threaten the Balkans, Greece would sink into civil war, and the Aegean would become a mass grave.

To some extent that’s plausible. The fact that it’s being painted so dramatically is primarily for tactical reasons. It’s more or less the German government’s background threat to re-Europeanize the refugee crisis. It aims to make clear to Germany’s European Union partners that refugees aren’t just Germany’s problem, that it concerns many E.U. countries and would do so even more should Germany do what almost all the other E.U. states are doing, namely looking the other way, not helping and sealing themselves off.

All the same, it’s worth questioning the theory’s premise. Not just as criticism for the sake of criticizing, but because it might lead to a different, no-less plausible scenario.

In the domino theory, the flow of refugees is seen as a force of nature that’s unstoppable, like a river that flows from the mountains to the sea, no matter what you put in the water’s way. That’s how the refugees streaming through Turkey and the Balkans to Europe are seen. If a fence is built anywhere, they’ll find a way around it, and if no way exists around it, there’ll be a jam like placing a dam in a flood, and the more water flows in, the greater the pressure. That’s why people assume there’s a need for fences, dogs and water cannons, and at some point even the order to fire, to safeguard the fence. That’s why people assume war could erupt in the Balkans and revolts in Greece.


syrian familie reuters
Families need facts for tough choices. Source: Reuters


But it’s a strange way of thinking about the nature of the migrants behind this theory. They’re seen as a mass, not as individuals. As being driven out of their homeland and not as people trying to shape their own fates under adverse conditions.

It’s no coincidence that in the German debate the talk almost is exclusively of “refugees,” in total ignorance of the completely different motives people have for taking to the road: war, hunger, suffering. But also hope for employment, an education for their children, a better life. All of them legitimate motives but far from being the same for all. And not all have to be treated the same way.

This isn’t just theory, on the contrary, but leads to the core of migration policy. If you start to consider the migrants as people who behave rationally then you can develop other strategies for dealing with them. You can assume they communicate with each other, continuously and they know the migration market, the prices of the traffickers, the connections from Athens to the Macedonian border and the situation in the countries they aim to reach. And mainly you can assume they are constantly weighing the pros and cons and acting accordingly.

It’s no accident many migrants destroy their papers – they know it lessens the danger of deportation. It’s no accident that after the Swedish government announced a stop to taking in refugees, it took only two days until the port of Rostock, which until then had been the jumping-off place to Sweden for many migrants, was empty. And it’s no accident the overwhelming majority of migrants want to go to Germany: They know they will be treated comparatively well here and they can expect to stay for a long time.

Since that, of course, has been the German migrant policy of the past years, you can pretty much cynically sum it up this way: We will make the path for you as difficult as possible, but if you do manage to make it to Germany, then you can stay, somehow. And it doesn’t matter at all where you came from and why you left.

This message has been received. And migration produces migration. Immigrants pull along other immigrants behind them.


A road and people in the middle east reuters
Hundreds of thousands of people are making difficult journeys within, away from, and back to the Middle East. Source: Reuters


If migrants are actors who decide what to do, what burdens they want to take on, how much homesickness they can endure, how long they can take being separated from their families – then the strategy of dealing with them changes as well.

Then it isn’t so much a matter of how strong the borders are, it’s more a matter of getting inside the minds of the migrants and influencing their individual calculations so when they’re deciding whether to go or stay, they decide against setting off.

Fences aren’t primarily what’s needed for this. In the words of Oxford economist Paul Collier, one of Europe’s most respected migration researchers, it takes “a radical shift in communication.” Mr. Collier maintains Europe must clearly say, the migrants seeking prosperity don’t even need to set out to come. And refugees seeking safety can no longer do that in Europe but rather in safe neighboring countries.

This shift in communication would mean an official announcement that Germany, like Sweden, is no longer taking in more migrants for the time being, at least not those arriving by land routes. Legally, that would be no problem since all asylum seekers who reach the German borders are coming from safe third-party countries. It would be a purely political decision. And certainly signals from the German government exist that something along these lines is being considered.

Such a decision would have to come virtually overnight, without any advance notice, well-prepared and carefully coordinated, as difficult as it might be. The message must be sent primarily from Germany, but not from Germany alone. All countries along the Balkan route would need to be involved.

The migrants on the road in a country along the route at the time of the announcement must be asked to remain where they are and await the E.U. asylum process – or turn back. A prerequisite naturally would be that the same standards of asylum were observed in all the countries. Anyone who tried to keep moving farther north would have to be sent back at the next border, possibly forfeiting the chance of applying for asylum again. That would be neither inhumane nor unfair; it would be in correspondence with all European and international agreements. It would merely limit the freedom of the migrants to choose the country in which they want to settle. This free choice of asylum country established in recent months is “a pull factor of the first magnitude,” as Christine Langenfeld, chairwoman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, recently noted.

Undoubtedly, the first days after the announcement of such an stop to accepting refugees would be followed by anger, outrage and despair among the asylum seekers, possibly riots. Border controls probably would have to be strengthened and those arriving turned back. The federal authorities already have such operational concepts. Most likely some migrants would attempt to get around the border controls and enter the country illegally. Since they would then no longer be entitled to any services and not have any chance of filing an asylum application, an illegal border crossing would hold little attraction.

Such a step, employed for a few weeks, would change how individual migrants see the situation. The prospects of a permanent stay in Germany would be gone, and the incentive for spending a lot of money and taking great risks would be minimized.

But at the same time as the admittance stop, an exception must be announced. From the beginning, there must be an institutionalized gateway, so to speak, built into Europe’s outer borders – refugee quotas. 

Germany must declare itself ready to accept, year-by-year, a contingent of people from refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. People can come by ship or rail, perhaps even by plane, selected in a reasonably fair process, according to a transparent criteria.

Such a solution would spoil the murderous business of traffickers. It would ease the pressure on the Balkans route and the outer borders of the European Union. It also would create moral justification for largely closing the outer borders, particularly to economic immigrants. But above all, it would eliminate the fundamental inequity, yes inhumanity, of the current practice, a situation that isn’t being discussed much at all in Germany.

The present immigration policy of literally “hiking in” favors, in reality, the strong and puts the weak at a disadvantage. It crucially doesn’t serve those most in need of aid, protection, medical care – namely families with children, orphans, the sick and the aged. It benefits above all those who have strength, money and connections. It isn’t by chance so many of those coming to us are young men. They have the best chances of managing to get through.

This humanitarian absurdity can be ended with a contingent solution. So how many could come? Certainly not just 25,000, like Canada is accepting, but certainly not as many as last year. Perhaps 300,000, maybe 400,000 people every year. Would there be injustices in the selection of who is to come and who not? Certainly. But it would be fairer than now since fate or a storm decides who lives and who dies. If the idea works, other countries might decide to join in and also accept contingents.


Syria’s War Refugees-01
Syria’s neighbors are seeing a huge influx of refugees.


Proponents of a liberal immigration policy occasionally argue the acceptance of refugees in Europe is part of a grander policy, a policy of reconciliation with the Muslims in the Middle East, people who have suffered a century because of the West’s geostrategic mistakes and arrogance.

You don’t have to share this argument, but one thing is certain: A contingent solution for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of civil war refugees a year, combined with a Marshall Plan-like aid for the countries bordering Syria, that would be a work of conciliation no one in the West would need to be ashamed about.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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