The German government on Tuesday confirmed it had decided to let nearly all refugees from Syria stay in the country, ignoring an E.U. rule that may have required it to transport thousands back to Greece, Italy and other points of entry.
The decision – taken quietly last week but only confirmed yesterday by the government – comes as E.U. nations are struggling to develop a coherent policy to house and care for the migrants across the 28-nation block.
Up to 800,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Germany this year, many from Syria, according to the government, almost four times the level in 2014.
Germany and Sweden have taken the bulk of the immigrants flowing into the E.U. this year, and have tried unsuccessfully to pressure other E.U. nations to take their fair share.
Technically, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in their first country of entry into the European Union, typically Italy and Greece, under the so-called Dublin Protocol. But those countries, as well as France and other nations, have simply let refugees pass through their borders to Germany and Sweden.
The refugee issue has divided Germans, evoking an outpouring of sympathy and donations, but also fanning right-wing violence and demonstrations at proposed refugee asylum centers.
More than 200 incidents of right-wing violence and threats have been reported against refugees this year. Yesterday, unknown persons started a fire in Nauen, Germany, a town east of Berlin, at a building to house refugees.
Over the weekend, far-right demonstrators fought with police after setting fire to a proposed refugee housing center in Heidenau, a town near Dresden. The ugly scenes of right-wing violence evoked condemnation from the government, and have prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit the town today.
This summer, the refugee issue has occupied Germans like no other, as thousands of arrivals have poured into every corner of the country.
Berliners were appalled by images of thousands of refugees waiting for days in torrid summer heat outside the capital’s asylum registration offices.
Families with children and babies, many from Syria, were left without food or water, batting wasps and standing for hours in the sweltering heat. But media reports prompted a small army of volunteers to turn up, bearing food, clothing and other donations.
Yet, despite the generous outpouring of support, Germany’s authorities are struggling to cope with the massive influx.
Many of those arriving are from war-torn Syria.
Between January and July, Germany registered 44,417 applications from Syria, which has seen over 4 million people flee a brutal civil war that began in March 2011.
“People are not going to voluntarily leap into abject poverty. They generally want to go where they have the best chance of making a life.”
By dint of geography, the countries where most of them first arrive are usually Greece and Italy.
The two nations have been overwhelmed by the refugee situation, as tens of thousands land on their shores after making the perilous sea journey across the Mediterranean from Turkey or North Africa.
The E.U. border agency, Frontex this week said that a record 107,000 migrants had arrived at European land and sea borders last month. More than 20,000 people have arrived in Greece alone.
This week Amnesty International released a report describing the “dreadful conditions” that face refugees arriving in Greece, a country with its own massive economic problems.
Greg Ó Ceallaigh, a U.K.-based barrister working on asylum cases, said that the situation in Italy is equally dire. “The state of the reception centers has got progressively worse over the last numbers of years as the numbers there have increased,” he said.
While many who land in Italy make their way to northern Europe, the overwhelmed authorities in Greece are letting thousands travel into the Balkans where they traverse Macedonia and Serbia before re-entering the European Union in Hungary.
The United Nations estimates about 3,000 people are now crossing from Greece into Macedonia every day.
With the European asylum system bursting at the seams, Berlin’s decision on the Syrian asylum seekers is a significant move.
Germany’s decision to waive the Dublin rules was made last Friday, when Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, or BAMF, issued an internal memo, telling staff to stop checking if Syrian refugees had already registered in another E.U. country.
The officials were also instructed to halt any deportations of Syrians to Greece or Italy.
On Tuesday, the office confirmed that decision. “Germany will become the member state responsible for processing their claims.”
“This new regulation is a guideline, not a formal directive,” a spokesman said.
The German authorities had all but abandoned any adherence to the E.U. rules when it came to Syrians, but not completely. This year, up to the end of July, 131 Syrians had been removed to another country based on the Dublin protocol. Those deportations will now end.
It is a significant gesture and the reaction was immediate, with many Syrians sharing a picture of Chancellor Merkel and a German flag with the words “We Love You” on social media.
On Tuesday, there was also some praise from Brussels for the German “act of European solidarity”.
“This constitutes a recognition of the fact that we cannot leave the member states at the external borders alone in dealing with a large number of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Europe,” said Natasha Bertaud, spokeswoman for the European Commission.
Pro Asyl, a German refugee rights organization, welcomed the decision, as the first step in admitting that “Dublin has failed.” But Pro Asyl director, Günther Burkhardt, said that unfortunately there was still the impression that the system worked for those who are not from Syria. The German government has to “face reality and set aside the rule for other refugees too.”
“The Dublin system is dead. It was never a fair system,” Peter Sutherland, the UN’s migration chief, said on Monday. “It unloads responsibility to frontline states like Greece and Italy, and on the most desirable destinations like Germany and Sweden, who are taking far more than others,” he told British broadcaster Channel 4.
While the Dublin system puts undue strain on a small minority of E.U. states, it is also unsatisfactory for many of those most affected – the asylum seekers.
For years refugee and humanitarian organizations have criticized the rule, because it holds refugees in limbo, shifts vulnerable people from country to country, and often prevents their effective integration.
“People are not going to voluntarily leap into abject poverty,” Mr. Ó Ceallaigh told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “They generally want to go where they can speak the language, or they might have family connections, where they have the best chance of making a life.”
For example, someone who already has friends or relatives in Sweden or the United Kingdom is going to have a far easier time settling in there, than say, Italy, where they know no one. In addition, there is little support for refugees even if they are granted asylum, leaving many vulnerable people homeless.
“They don’t speak Italian, they don’t know anybody in Italy,” he said. “They probably don’t have any accommodation and very low prospects of getting a job.”
Mr. Ó Ceallaigh says that people should be given more autonomy for where they settle “within reason,” admitting that a Europe-wide asylum without any regulation would not work, as just a few countries would end up shouldering most of the burden.
Germany in particular is pushing for a fairer asylum system in Europe.
On Monday, Ms. Merkel met with the French president, Francois Hollande, to try to come up with a joint plan on how to address the crisis. The two leaders called for a unified system for the right to asylum, as well as the setting up of reception centers in Greece and Italy. Ms Merkel spoke of an “exceptional situation” which “is not going to end soon.”
The United Kingdom and Eastern Europe have already blocked a plan for a mandatory quota of refugees through the E.U. The British have only taken in a few hundred Syrians so far. And many Eastern European countries have said they don’t want to take any Muslim refugees.
The debate over immigration in the United Kingdom is highly charged, with the headlines dominated by the relatively small number of asylum seekers, estimated to be about 2,000, camped out at the French port of Calais in the hope of making Britain via ferries or the Channel Tunnel.
“The U.K. should step up and take more, particularly Syrians,” says Mr. Ó Ceallaigh. “There is a big Syrian community here, and the U.K. needs to accept responsibility for a chunk of the people who are feeling persecution right on Europe’s doorstep.”
In an effort to push forward the debate, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, both leading members of the Social Democrats, the junior ruling party, published a 10-point plan in English calling for European reform, including a call to “distribute refugees fairly across Europe.”
“Never before have so many people fled political persecution and war as today, many of whom seek refuge here with us in Europe,” they wrote on Monday. “The political framework for action has long ceased to be national. Only together and only at the European level will we be able to find rational solutions.”
While the majority of Germans have been welcoming, there have been tensions, with the far-right exploiting the situation, holding protests outside asylum centers. And there have been frequent arson attacks. This week alone a three-story house near Stuttgart and a school gym in Nauen, outside Berlin, were destroyed by fire. Both had been slated to house asylum seekers.
In a show of support for the refugees, politicians have turned out in force to visit various asylum centers and speak out against the violence.
On Monday, Mr. Gabriel went to visit a refugee camp at Heidenau outside Dresden where hundreds of far-right radicals had protested and clashed with police over the weekend. There he addressed the right-wing rioters: “We have a message for you. You don’t belong to us and we don’t want you here.’’
His visit has since prompted a slew of hate mail and insults aimed at the Social Democrats, according to party general secretary Yasmin Fahimi. And on Tuesday afternoon its party headquarters in Berlin had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat.
Ms. Merkel has already condemned the protests as “disgusting” and on Wednesday she is also visiting Heidenau.
Meanwhile, the massive flows of refugees, particularly through the Balkans and into Eastern Europe, has led to growing calls for a reassessment of the Schengen system, which allows for free movement within most of the Europe Union, excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Many desperate refugees are availing of the system to make their way to their preferred countries. Yet, Hungary, the first Schengen country that many enter, is threatening to block the border to Serbia and is in the process of erecting a massive fence.
While many Syrians are using this route, there are also many other migrants coming from Eastern European countries, and they have very little chance of being granted asylum.
In Germany, it is estimated that about 40 percent of those seeking asylum are from the Balkans.
Berlin has already drawn up a list of “safe countries of origin,” whose citizens are automatically refused asylum, including Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Now, it also wants this type of list to be applied across the board in the European Union. In their 10-point plan, Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Steinmeier called on the bloc to “define safe countries of origin.”
“The countries of the Western Balkans aim to join the E.U., and we have good cause to extend to them the prospect of accession. By the same token, we cannot treat them as persecuting countries,” they wrote.
However, the opponents of such a blanket decision argue that these countries have massive Sinti and Roma populations, and some of those people could have a legitimate claim to asylum based on the widespread racism and discrimination they often face in their home countries.
Immigration lawyer Mr. Ó Ceallaigh urged politicians to avoid knee-jerk reactions, pointing out that the amount of those arriving is only about 0.3 percent of the entire European Union population.
“The whole issue of refugees and asylum seekers has been massively politicized,” he said.
“It would be catastrophic to allow the whole European project to be derailed by the crisis.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers European and German politics. Andrea Dernbach, a reporter with Der Tagesspiegel, contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org