Refugee Crisis

Sharp Fall in Asylum Seekers

Migrants queue  inside a tent at the compound outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs waiting to register in Berlin
Their ranks are thinning: The number of ayslum-seekers dropped sharply last year. Source: Reuters

Around 280,000 new asylum-seekers arrived in Germany in 2016, a sharp drop from the 890,000 who entered the country the year before, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced Wednesday.

That number must be music to the ears of his boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who initially won praise for her “open-door” policy aimed largely at Syrians fleeing civil war but has seen her party lose voters to the right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland party as a result.

Migration and security have soared to the top of the national agenda.

The measures taken by Germany and the European Union “are taking hold,” Mr. de Maizière told reporters in Berlin. “We’ve been successful in managing and controlling the migration process.”

A main reason for the decline was the move by several European countries last spring to close the so-called Balkan route, which refugees had been using to travel up from Greece to central Europe, he said.

“We’ve been successful in managing and controlling the migration process.”

Thomas de Maizière, Interior Minister

Hungary responded to the influx of migrants by building a razor-wire barrier along its border with Serbia and later with Croatia. Austria erected a fence along a stretch of its Slovenian border, in addition to deploying armed forces at its southeastern border and limiting the number of migrants allowed to transit through the country to 3,200 per day. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia clamped down on their borders with Greece as well.

Also last year, the E. U. agreed to a controversial deal with Turkey aimed at returning all migrants that illegally make the treacherous trip by sea to Greece from Turkey. In return, E.U. nations would take thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and pay the nation €6 billion ($6.7 billion) over five years.

However, Turkey’s gradual slide into a dictatorship under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strained its relations with the European Union and particularly Germany, which has taken in the largest number of asylum-seekers by far. The migrant deal, observers agree, is shakier than ever.

While the number of migrants reaching Germany fell last year, the number formally applying for asylum rose sharply. Figures released by the interior ministry showed 745,545 asylum applications last year, or 268,869 more than in 2015. That total included 268,866 applications from Syrians, 127,892 from Afghans and 97,162 from Iraqis, forming the largest groups.

The hike in applications last year is due to the record number of migrants in 2015, many of whom couldn’t apply immediately for asylum because of overwhelmed immigration authorities.

Around 55,000 migrants returned home voluntarily in 2016, compared with about 35,000 the year before, and some 25,000 were forced to leave by the authorities, according to Mr. de Maizière. But he said the number of returns remains low because of resistance from some of the Maghreb states to take back rejected asylum applicants.

On Tuesday, Mr. de Maizière and Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced a number of measures to increases those numbers. They include cutting or ending development aid to countries that refuse to take back asylum seekers, imposing visa restrictions.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

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