Asylum Crisis How Many Refugees Can Germany Handle?

As Germany faces the highest number of refugee claimants in decades, it's becoming increasingly clear that the European asylum system is broken. But fixing it will involve hard decisions.


By and

Friedersdorf in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. It's hard to grasp why 27-year-old Sina Alinia ended up here, in a shelter for asylum seekers. He's a civil engineer, a highly respected profession in Germany, for which there is a great demand. There are 16,400 unfilled jobs for civil engineers in Germany. And yet here he is, in a shelter at the end of the street, at the end of all streets, separated from Bitterfeld by six kilometers and nothing but empty villages.

Alinia, an Iranian, has been waiting to find out about his asylum request for two and a half years. It's almost like he was placed on a shelf and forgotten. His initial request was rejected and now the appeals process is underway. He hopes someone will finally give him something to do, something involving work. But because the immigration office wants him to remain in Saxony-Anhalt, and the employment agency doesn't want him to compete with others for jobs here, nothing happens.

Meanwhile, on an August morning at the Munich airport, 14 Egyptians arrive on the daily Lufthansa flight from Tbilisi. There were nine on yesterday's flight. Egyptian asylum seekers always arrive on the plane from Tbilisi, Georgia, because Egyptians don't need a visa for Georgia. And if they're just changing planes here on their way back to Egypt, they don't need one for Germany. But then instead of changing planes, they disembark. The German Federal Police calls them "transit jumpers." There were close to 600 of them in Munich between May to August. It is the easiest way to enter the asylum system.

Europe's current asylum policy, and its shortcomings, has become a major talking point since the recent tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa -- where more than 300 refugees died on Oct. 3. Their boat sank as it was making its way, illegally, from Libya to Europe. Last Friday, dozens died when another ship, this time with more than 200 refugees on board, sank off the coast of Sicily.

It's clear that this cannot continue, and yet it does. Although European Union interior ministers met in Luxembourg last Tuesday to discuss the problem, the EU's Dublin Regulation -- which stipulates that the country in which a refugee first enters the EU is where he or she must apply for asylum and stay -- is likely to remain unchanged. So what solution, if any, is there for Europe's growing refugee crisis? And how much asylum can Germany afford? How much does it want to?

Germany Confronts Its Conscience

For Germans, the issue is fraught with contradictions. There is the contradiction between the admirable concept of asylum, which emerged from the experiences of the Nazi era, and its everyday bureaucracy. Then there is the contradiction between the provisions of asylum laws, some of them tough, and how these laws are in fact applied, because they are not designed to accommodate the new realities. And there is also the contradiction between Germany's new, welcoming culture -- in which it insists that it does want more immigrants -- and its unchanged policy of deterrence -- which it employs to keep out those who would burden its social welfare system.

But the biggest contradiction of all is between their sense of decency and desire for prosperity. The Germans want to the save the world, partly because of their bad conscience, but they also want to protect their own wealth.

For years, these contradictions weren't problematic, because there were so few asylum seekers. But now the numbers have risen again, to more than 100,000 a year, the highest figure since 1997. For Dieter Wiefelspütz -- a departing representative of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who spent 26 years working on immigration policy -- 100,000 is "the magic number." "When it goes above 100,000," he says, Bild, the conservative German tabloid, gets involved, and the discourse becomes more heated.

Statistic Wars

The debate around asylum policy is not unlike the Cold War. There's good and there's bad, and anything that doesn't fit into either of those two categories is dismissed. On the one side are the supportive groups, so to speak, like Pro Asyl, the churches, the Left Party, the Green Party and half the SPD. For them, no person is illegal, every claim of persecution can be substantiated, and deportation is always tantamount to aiding and abetting torture and murder.

On the other side, there are the enforcement agencies -- the immigration office and the federal police -- the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the other half of the SPD. For them, a law is a law, and deportation is merely the logical conclusion of a final court decision.

Both sides use asylum statistics to argue for their cause. This year, German authorities received 74,194 asylum applications by the end of September. (The number of applications normally increases at the end of the year, hence the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees' prognosis of over 100,000 asylum seekers for 2013.) But is that a lot or a little?

If you look at it one way, Germany will see 55 percent more applications in 2013 than 2012, and five times as many as in 2007. In 2012, Germany overtook France as the country with the largest number of asylum applications in Europe, by a substantial margin. Some 23 percent of all EU asylum seekers came to Germany in 2012. By comparison, Germans make up only 16 percent of the EU population.

On the other hand, 100,000 refugees is a relatively small number when you consider Germany's population of 81 million. Lebanon and Turkey, in contrast, have accepted more than a million refugees fleeing the war in Syria. And given that about a million foreigners immigrated to Germany in 2012 -- to work, study or join their families -- it seems like Germany should be able to handle 100,000 asylum seekers.

Pro Asyl uses the number of refugees per 1,000 inhabitants as its benchmark, in which case Germany is no longer in first place among countries accepting asylum seekers, but 10th, behind Malta, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland and other countries with small populations. "It's a disgrace for a country as rich as Germany," says Frankfurt lawyer Reinhard Marx, one of the country's top asylum law attorneys.

A Sharp Shift

If the CDU and the SPD can agree on anything when it comes to immigration policy -- and asylum policy, especially -- it is that the less the subject is discussed in public, the better. "I'm really not upset that immigration and asylum policy hasn't been the subject of such divisive debate in recent years than it was in the past," says CDU domestic policy expert Wolfgang Bosbach. The SPD also values the lack of popular and political outrage. "Immigration policy had lost some of its importance, which is why we were able to make adjustments here and there every few years," says Wiefelspütz.

It was a completely different story in the early 1990s, when the civil war in Yugoslavia drove up application numbers and prompted loud and intense disputes. The result was a misguided asylum compromise -- a compromise in name only -- that stipulated that any refugee who had arrived in Germany from a safe third country had no right to asylum. Because all of Germany's neighbors were "safe" countries, asylum as it was described in the German constitution became unattainable for most refugees.

In 2005, a battle over legislation ended with a curbing of immigration, despite economic experts' claims that the country needs about 500,000 highly qualified workers a year. The law, with its excessive requirements, became a deterrent.

Since then, immigration policy has quietly undergone one of the sharpest policy shifts in recent German history, as immigration and asylum policies have become friendlier and more liberal, even among conservatives.

New Consensus

Take, for example, the right of residence. The Central Aliens Registry classifies about 90,000 people as being "tolerated," meaning they are asylum seekers whose applications were rejected but cannot be deported. This could be for humanitarian reasons, because their native countries are refusing to allow them to return, because it is unclear what their native country is, or because they claim no longer to have papers (as is the case with 80 percent of asylum seekers).

Many of these "tolerated" aliens were able to gain a foothold in Germany over the years. They learned to speak German, had children and played football in their local clubs. But their long-term prospects were always tentative -- their so-called toleration, or suspension of deportation, had to be renewed every six months.

In 2007, the Grand Coalition of the CDU and the SPD in Berlin agreed to grant the right of residence to tolerated individuals who had already been in Germany for at least six years, had a job and were able to support themselves. This rewarded those who had made a concerted effort to become integrated, as well as those who had, for whatever reason, successfully managed to fight off deportation. Pushed by the CDU, the federal government later introduced a right of residence for well-integrated young people who had attended a German school for at least six years.


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