Migrant Management

Merkel Shifts Into Crisis Mode

merkel 31 aug 2015 refugee conference source imago_Christian Thiel
The surge of refugees into Germany -- 800,000 are expected this year alone -- has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to act quickly.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Germany can’t get Europeans to jointly address the refugee crisis, pressure will build to close borders and push migrants elsewhere.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • 43 percent of migrants coming to the European Union are coming to Germany.
    • Chancellor Merkel equated the refugee crisis with the challenge of German reunification.
    • Ms. Merkel said Germany would provide more money for local governments, cut red tape and deport economic migrants more quickly.
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    Audio

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Angela Merkel is known for her gravitas and steady-hand style of government.

Time and again, her approach has been to wait and see, consult and ponder, and only then, to decide.

For Germany’s chancellor, deliberation always comes before speed.

But with 800,000 asylum seekers jostling their way into Germany this year, her usual tried-and-true approach isn’t working. What Germany needs now is a chancellor who takes action.

The German chancellor appears to have realised that too, judging by her demeanour on Monday at her annual summer news conference, which was dominated by the migrant crisis.

“We’ll manage it and wherever there’s an obstacle it must be overcome,” she said, avoiding specifics.

She likened the challenge that Germany now faces to that the country experienced 25 years ago upon reunificaiton. Rather than “German thoroughness,” Ms. Merkel said, the country now needs “German flexibility.”

Two weeks ago, Ms. Merkel said the refugee crisis had dwarfed the Greek debt crisis that flared up earlier this year.

The German government estimates that At 800,000 migrants will reach Germany this year, nearly four times as many as last year and far more than any other country in the European Union.

The massive influx of people, many fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, but also poverty in the Balkans, has overwhelmed some local communities and fueled far-right protests at refugee shelters in northern and eastern Germany.

So far this year, the government has recorded more than 200 incidents of right-wing violence or threats directed at individuals or shelters.

Germany needs to take act swiftly, Ms. Merkel said, just as it did during the 2008 financial crisis and after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, when her government expedited the phaseout of German nuclear power.

Germany on its own won’t be able to cope with the migrant problem, Ms. Merkel said at the news conference, adding that this was a task for “Europe as a whole” and the current situation — where E.U. countries led by Britain and Poland have balked at taking more refugees — was unsatisfactory.

But Ms. Merkel stopped short of singling out other European countries for refusing to take on refugees. But her comments were clearly aimed at countries such as Britain, France, Lithuania and Slovakia, which have refused to take in more migrants.

As a result, some 43 percent of all asylum-seekers entering the European Union this year are coming to Germany.

On the nightly television news, Germans have been watching as authorities in Hungary and Austria wave through train- and busloads of immigrants on their way to Germany, anything to avoid dealing with the costs and trouble.

The country’s 16 regional states and local authorities, which are responsible for looking after migrants, say they are straining under the costs of providing extra accommodation, food and medical care for the new arrivals.

Ms. Merkel is well aware of how explosive the issue is in Germany.

She herself was heckled and booed last week when she visited asylum seekers living in cramped, uncomfortable conditions in a former DIY store in the eastern German town of Heidenau, where 31 police officers were injured in anti-refugee protests the previous weekend.

On Monday, she urged Germans to ignore the call of those in Germany, often associated with far-right organizations, mounting protests against refugee shelters.

“Too often there is prejudice; too often there is coldness and even hatred in their hearts,” she said.

The heckles she heard in Heidenau, where people shouted abuse and held up placards calling her a “Traitor,” hadn’t fazed her, she said.

“What disturbs me is that we have such hatred and such a mood in our country,” Ms. Merkel said.

There shouldn’t be “a shred of sympathy” for anti-refugee protestors, she said. “Nothing, nothing whatsoever justifies such behavior.”

The choice of words was unusually tough from Ms. Merkel, who has been prone to understatement and reserve in her decade as Germany’s chancellor.

On Monday, she outlined a range of measures to tackle the refugee crisis, which is shaping up to the biggest challenge so far.

The measures range from more quickly processing and returning economic migrants — those coming often from Balkan countries determined “safe” by Germany — to relaxing bureaucratic rules to accommodate visitors.

At her press conference, Ms. Merkel didn’t say how much her measures to cope with the migrant influx would cost.

But it will certainly run into billions of euros, experts said.

The country’s 16 regional states and local authorities, which are responsible for looking after migrants, say they are straining under the costs of providing extra accommodation, food and medical care for the new arrivals.

Ms. Merkel’s government last week approved €1 billion, or $1.12 billion, in support to local government authorities handling refugees.

On Monday, she said more would be done but didn’t give any figures.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has signalled that a large part of the expected €5 billion in extra tax revenues this year — a result of Germany’s growing economy — would be channeled to helping migrants.

Ms. Merkel also promised to process asylum requests faster.

The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has been given the green light to recruit 1,000 new staff members this year, but it’s taking time to fill the vacancies.

The office has a pile of 250,000 unprocessed asylum requests even though it has already processed more cases this year than in all of 2014. It now plans to work off most of the backlog within six months.

In order to speed processing of requests deemed unlikely to be approved, migrants from Balkan countries in particular are no longer being distributed among local authorities.

Instead, they will remain at initial reception centers, from where they can then be returned to their countries of origin.

The German government also plans to make more accommodation ready for shelters by easing red tape that has delayed the reopening of suitable locations such as unused former army barracks.

Ms. Merkel said local authorities would also be allowed to suspend requirements governing energy efficiency and fire protection, for example, to speed the opening of new housing for immigrants.

The center-left Social Democrats, the junior partners in Ms. Merkel’s ruling coalition, are pushing for a law to retain qualified immigrants and give economic migrants from the Balkans more of a chance of staying in Germany than they have under current law.

Ms. Merkel said she was open to idea but signaled it wasn’t a priority since the surge in war refugees alone would likely provide many new workers.

The Federal Labor Agency has set up a pilot project to assess the skills of asylum seekers and find work for them.

 

refugees in munich_dpa
Refugees from Syria at Munich’s central station are waiting to be registered and to receive identification documents. Some of them just arrived by train from Hungary. Source: Andreas Gebert/DPA

 

Dubbed “Early Intervention,” it was launched last year at nine locations in Germany. Many refugees head for the large, industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where many employers are based. The regional authority there has expanded the project to 17 sites.

But experience has shown that the job search often founders on bureaucracy or a shortage of German language teaching courses.

Urgent diplomacy is another priority for Ms. Merkel.

The interior ministers of the 28 E.U. member countries have been arguing for months over a distribution quota, blocking any progress. But with the number of migrants surging every day, pressure for a binding agreement is mounting.

The ministers will make a new attempt to reach an accord on September 14.

By then, the European Commission plans to present a new list of countries that are deemed to be safe, a move that may speed up the return of economic migrants. That’s what the German government has been pushing for.

Following that, E.U. leaders could then adopt a refugee quota system as early as October — if Ms. Merkel can break the political logjam in Brussels.

 

Thomas Sigmund is the bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the authors: sigmund@handelsblatt.com and hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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