SPIEGEL Migration Debate 'One of the Most Serious Dramas of Our Times'

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann and human rights activist Elias Bierdel recently met with SPIEGEL editors to debate German and EU migration policies in light of the recent mass deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

  Syrian refugees arrive in a dinghy on the Greek island of Kos on May 6.

Syrian refugees arrive in a dinghy on the Greek island of Kos on May 6.

Interview Conducted By and

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herrmann, how do refugees pose a threat to domestic security, as you recently suggested?

Herrmann: I was referring to the uncontrolled influx from Italy. Monitoring of migrants arriving there and in other countries on the European Union's external border has been more or less suspended. And this despite the fact that Islamist terrorists could also be among the asylum-seekers.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any evidence of that?

Herrmann: So far, thank God, we haven't had to experience a terrorist act perpetrated by someone claiming to be an asylum-seeker. But if word gets around that Germany can be reached with practically no controls, then the security of our nation will also be put in jeopardy.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Bierdel, do you share this concern?

Bierdel: It's a calamity that ministers responsible for the police like Joachim Herrmann have responsibility for sensitive issues like flight, asylum and migration in Europe. To denounce human beings who are seeking our protection or even just prospects for their lives as security risks is a perverse distortion of reality. And another thing: Before they can cross into Germany through its borders, the people have to first get to Europe. But that has been made nearly impossible for them by the interior ministers of the EU member states.

Herrmann: Excuse me. Last year alone, 200,000 asylum-seekers came to Germany. So it appears that it is indeed possible.

Bierdel: Some only manage to get here by placing themselves at the highest possible personal risk. Just look at the news in April. First there were 400 deaths, then 700 and then even over 900 deaths. How much longer are we going to keep watching as this happens? Many, many people are dying because Europe offers them no legal way of getting here.

SPIEGEL: Do the borders need to be opened for this reason?

Bierdel: In an ideal world, yes. But not here and now. In any case, we need a separate ministry to handle asylum-seekers. We need to get away from a situation in which refugee policy is perceived first and foremost as security policy.

Herrmann: That's a totally myopic point of view. The legal framework for asylum-seekers in Germany is more generously worded than that of most other countries in the world. And Germany takes in more asylum-seekers than any other EU member state.

Bierdel: That may be true in terms of absolute figures, but measured against the population and economic power, our engagement on behalf of people in need is modest. So far, the German government hasn't come up with any better ideas for addressing the refugee drama than to place asylum-seekers in camps.

SPIEGEL: Politicians do seem to be learning. In some places, refugees are already being provided with decentralized accommodations; and there are numerous initiatives to try to make life in Germany easier for them.

Bierdel: A lot more needs to happen! Both domestically, but also at the borders. Refugees seeking protection are running into fortress-like structures that Europe's interior ministers have erected at the external borders.

Herrmann: We need to be able to scrutinize the people who want to come to us.

Bierdel: But you don't review individual fates -- people are turned away en masse at the borders.

Herrmann: You're twisting the facts. We need to know who is entering our territory in order to be able to provide security for our people. The Schengen agreement has removed Europe's internal borders. That makes control of the EU's external borders even more important.

SPIEGEL: What can be done to prevent the deaths of refugees at Europe's periphery?

Bierdel: The problem is that people seeking protection can only apply for asylum within the EU. Refugees first have to illegally cross the border. In Syria, we're witnessing an unprecedented tragedy in our immediate vicinity. But what do politicians like Mr. Herrmann do? They seal Europe off.

Herrmann: Nonsense! The situation in Syria is without a doubt a catastrophe. But Germany also took in 70,000 Syrians during the past three years -- more than any other country in the world, with the exception of the countries that are Syria's direct neighbors. What's the deal with other countries? Saudi Arabia has completely ducked its responsibilities as a neighbor; and many EU member states also aren't doing a thing.

Bierdel: Following the ship disaster off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, European politicians vowed to make improvements. Instead everything just got worse. In the Aegean Sea, Greek coast guard boats deliberately run over rubber dinghies carrying refugees in order to contain the number of asylum applications.

Herrmann: The people have to be rescued. And in terms of Greece: If such circumstances truly are prevailing there, then the extraordinary socialist-communist government currently in office there should do something to stop it.

Bierdel: I'm talking about one of the most serious dramas of our time, of the mass death taking place at the EU's external border -- and your only response is party politics?

Herrmann: I am merely pointing out that I am not a Greek politician and I cannot verify your claims. It is indisputable that no one can be allowed to drown in the Mediterranean. But it is just as true that the EU can't grant asylum to every shipwrecked migrant.

Bierdel: There are massive violations of human rights and international low at Europe's peripheries on a daily basis. And you, Mr. Herrmann, say: 'I don't care.' The main thing is that no refugees arrive in Europe.

Herrmann: I don't say that. But it is the human-smugglers and traffickers who are first and foremost responsible for the dead. Criminal bands take money to put people on rubber dinghies that aren't sea-worthy and send them across the Mediterranean.

Bierdel: Without the help of smugglers, most refugees wouldn't even stand a chance of reaching Europe.

SPIEGEL: But the smugglers risk human lives.

Bierdel: I grew up in West Berlin. During my childhood in the 1960s, people who smuggled citizens of East Germany into the West and were paid a lot of money to do so were called escape helpers. There were also a lot of crooks and unsavory figures among them.

SPIEGEL: Why is it that the EU still has no uniform standards for dealing with refugees today?

Bierdel: So far the only thing the member states have been able to agree upon is a common defensive strategy. Under the Dublin Agreement, asylum-seekers are condemned to remain in whichever country they first arrived in -- meaning, as a rule, in Italy, Greece or Bulgaria. These countries have been calling for a fair distribution of refugees in Europe for many years now.

Herrmann: We do in fact need a fair distribution system. That's also why I am promoting a new version of the Dublin agreement. We need clearly defined quotas within the EU.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't that happen long ago?

Bierdel: Because the German government used its veto several times. Among others, Wolfgang Schäuble was strictly opposed to quotas during his time as interior minister.

Herrmann: No, it's not because of us. It's primarily Eastern European countries that don't want refugees. But we can no longer tolerate that. I also support the idea that both the size and economic power of a country should be taken into consideration in determining the quota -- but it has to be a fair system.

SPIEGEL: Would Germany also then have to take in more refugees?

Herrmann: We already have 20,000 Syrians who have been brought to Germany with little red tape through the so-called contingency program. Have you counted the number of contingency refugees France or Great Britain have taken in? Zero. Hopefully more member states will participate if the EU interior ministers soon move to expand this contingency.

SPIEGEL: And what about the people who aren't from Syria?

Herrmann: To that end, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière only recently proposed creating welcome centers in North Africa, where asylum applications could be reviewed in the future.

Bierdel: My God! There's nothing new about that. This proposal has been bandied about for years -- and here, too, the point is to keep refugees out of Europe. After all, the CSU's term "refugee prevention" didn't come out of nowhere.

Herrmann: That's wide off the mark. During our party conference we discussed the issue of asylum intensively. And we agreed that, in the end, the causes of flight have to be tackled locally, through development aid in Africa and in the Middle East.

Bierdel: Great idea. Too bad it hasn't been implemented for the past 40 years. Just look at the treaty that led to European companies overfishing African fishing grounds to the point of collapse. Even today, our main focus in Africa is its natural resources.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel things should proceed?

Bierdel: We need to prevent people from dying while fleeing to Europe at all costs. Naturally refugees need to be registered at the borders, but they also need to be allowed to pass through so that they can apply for asylum in the EU.

Herrmann: Those who shout "asylum" are also let in. But when they are, I also expect your support when two-thirds of the asylum-seekers are later deported again.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herrmann, your party boss Horst Seehofer said, "Empathy for other people is a Bavarian trait." At the same time, he also said, "We are not the welfare office for the entire world." How do you reconcile those statements?

Herrmann: They are not mutually exclusive. Department stores in Munich always greet their guests. But every shoplifter is prosecuted. We help people who are escaping war or political persecution just the same. And we denounce the abuse of asylum by, for example, economic refugees from Kosovo.

Bierdel: I ask myself who faces the bigger challenge -- those attempting to seek protection and help here? Or the German politicians who don't know how they are supposed to provide people with accommodations. Why is it that you always have to talk about abuse?

Herrmann: People who seek asylum in Germany exclusively for financial reasons must assume that they will not be able to stay here. We can't take in all the world's poor in Germany.

SPIEGEL: Are 300,000 asylum-seekers really going to bring Germany to the brink of collapse?

Herrmann: We shouldn't measure the breaking point exclusively on the basis of individual figures. But during the first three months of 2015, over half of the asylum-seekers originating from the Balkan states came to Germany. With all due respect, I do not see any overriding reasons for granting asylum. The public is right to say that the asylum law was not created for economic refugees from Kosovo.

SPIEGEL: Politicians who advocate refugees are the subjects of death threats. Are things getting out of hand?

Herrmann: The overwhelming majority of Germans are exemplary in supporting refugees. The latest public opinion polls show that fears of foreign infiltration are down. Nevertheless, a small group of right-wing extremist ideologists is attempting to abuse the fears of some citizens and to spread fear. Politicians, criminal police and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany's domestic intelligence agency) all need to take resolute action to counter them.

Bierdel: Few other parties have stirred up the kind of resentment and fears against foreigners like the CSU. This policy is coming back to haunt it now.

Herrmann: That's nonsense. But what we are experiencing here is an immense influx of people who have zero chance of being able to stay here. That, in turn, is in fact creating an acceptance problem with many of our fellow citizens.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Herrmann, Mr. Bierdel, we thank you for this interview.

About Joachim Herrmann and Elias Bierdel
  • Andreas Müller/ DER SPIEGEL
    Joachim Herrmann (left), 58, has served as interior minister of the state of Bavaria since 2007. Previously, he was a senior official with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, leading its parliamentary group in the Bavarian state legislature. Herrmann is considered to be a hardliner in Germany's asylum debate. He's an outspoken proponent of deporting refugees.
Elias Bierdel (right), 54, used the aid ship Cap Anamur in 2004 to rescue African refugees whose ship was distressed at sea and take them to Sicily. He was taken into temporary custody on suspicions of human-trafficking. He was acquitted following a trial that went on for years in Italy. Today, Biedel is the chairman of the organization borderline-europe, which documents efforts by the EU to keep refugees from reaching its borders.

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