Refugee Crisis

Merkel Agrees to Transit Zones

Migrants queue in a crowded area outside the Berlin registration center.

The battle within Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats over establishing transit zones to speed up asylum and extradition procedures for migrants appears to be over. But the plan still faces opposition from the chancellor’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats.

The agreement is a victory for Horst Seehofer, the state premier of Bavaria and head of Ms. Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, whose state is the point of entry for many refugees reaching Germany from south-eastern Europe and is at the limit of its capacity.

Under the plan, asylum seekers would remain in transit zones, similar to the extraterritorial areas in airports, while their applications are being processed. The procedure would take a couple of days.

Ms. Merkel has repeatedly argued that Germany could cope with the unprecedented surge in refugees and would even benefit from them because of its aging population but she has seen her popularity and that of her party steadily slip in opinion polls.

“It must be clear that Germany is helping those who have a prospect of staying,” she said on Monday at an event of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, in the northern city of Stade. “And those who haven’t cannot receive help in our country.”

But Ms. Merkel also warned that the transit zones would not help stem the flow of “the thousands upon thousands of refugees” arriving at the country’s borders. She continues to press her fellow leaders in the European Union for a Europe-wide policy for dealing with the influx of refugees.

“It must be clear that Germany is helping those who have a prospect of staying. And those who haven’t cannot receive help in our country.”

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

With its liberal asylum laws and generous benefits, Germany has become a magnet for hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa.

The country expects between 800,000 and 1 million refugees this year alone, with Syrians comprising the largest group of asylum seekers.

Many Germans are beginning to question the growing costs of housing and feeding the refugees and how best to integrate those who can stay into society.

Some economists believe a European solution is necessary. “I could imagine a European refugee fund that would be financed by the E.U. member states and coordinated by the European Commission,” Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German Institute for Economic Research, told Handelsblatt.

The wave of mass migration has fueled protests by far-right parties in the country and prompted several attacks on refugee centers, most recently in Boizenburg, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

merkel-stade-carmen jaspersen-dpa
Ms. Merkel told party members in Stade that Germany can’t help all refugees. Source: Carmen Jaspersen/DPA


Mr. Seehofer was the first to announce the agreement with Ms. Merkel’s larger Christian Democratic Union party on setting up transit zones. He said a concrete proposal would be drawn up by the two parties this week.

Peter Altmeier, Ms. Merkel’s chief of staff and coordinator for refugee policy, told German television that the idea of a transit zone is “no German invention” but allowed under E.U. law. “‘And we’re now going to implement it,” he said.

The Bavarians have been particularly keen to stop directly at German borders those people from southeastern European countries deemed “safe,” meaning their citizens have no claim to asylum. Among those countries already in that category are Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia.

Both the Christian Democrats and their junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, would like to extend the list to include Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Although the two groups agree, in principle, on the need to speed up asylum and extradition procedures from migrants from southeastern Europe, the plan to set up transit zones threatens to drive a wedge between them.

Thomas Oppermann, head of the Social Democrat’s parliamentary group, told German television he opposed the plan, which he said would be “impossible to implement in practice and wrong in human terms.”

Justice Minister Heiko Mass, also a member of the Social Democrats, in an interview with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, referred to the transit zones as “mass holding camps in no-man’s land,” adding that detaining tens of thousands of refugees at the border would “cause more problems than it solves.”

Ms. Merkel will have her work cut out to overcome the strong reservations about the proposal among Social Democrat leaders. The refugee crisis is proving to be the biggest challenge the 61-year-old politician has faced since becoming chancellor in November 2005.


John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Daniel Delhaes, who covers policy in Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: and

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!