A Matter of Survival How to Humanely Solve Europe's Migration Crisis

Few topics have been as divisive in Europe as the question of what to do with the flood of migrants arriving on the shores of the Mediterranean. But a moral solution is possible. DER SPIEGEL spoke with experts about how it can be found.

Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

By , and Fritz Schaap


The residents living near Gleisdreieck, a broad field in Hamburg's Bergedorf neighborhood, weren't too concerned about the war in Syria, the dictatorship in Eritrea or the poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. They were more interested in the fate of the moor frogs in their neighborhood. In Stuttgart, it was the sand lizards, and in the Bavarian town of Eichenau, locals were concerned about the whiskered bat. The latter is under strict environmental protection and, like the other animals, was cited as a reason not to build a refugee hostel in the community. Two trees were to be cut down, and opponents of the shelter were worried that it might disturb the animals' habitat -- or perhaps, first and foremost, their own?

Even back then, in the spring of 2015, a time when masses of Germans were stepping up to the task of helping refugees, not all were fans of what came to be known as the country's "welcoming culture" -- especially not if they were directly affected by the refugees. "We can do it," Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the time, referring to the masses of refugees entering the country. But in one poll in the fall of that year, over half the respondents said they were afraid of the sheer numbers of refugees coming. By the end of 2015, almost a million people had reached Germany.

These days, nobody talks about bats in Eichenau anymore. The refugee hostel has been open for almost three years, shaded by birches and pines on the edge of the municipality -- and German society remains divided between those who want to isolate themselves and those who see open borders as a humanitarian imperative.

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In the meantime, the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), a populist and xenophobic party, has been elected into Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag. AfD isn't alone in agitating against immigrants, either. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the center-right Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) Bavarian sister party, has also disparaged people who assist refugees as the "anti-deportation industry" and has spoken of "asylum tourism." Even parts of the far-left Left Party are stoking prejudice against foreigners. Over the summer, Chancellor Merkel's government coalition even came close to collapsing over the refugee issue.

As the number of arrivals increased, so did the tensions, stoked by news about the events at the Cologne new year's eve celebrations in 2015, when migrants abused and attacked women sexually at a public celebration, or the murder of a 14-year-old girl in Wiesbaden, who was allegedly raped and killed by an Iraqi asylum-seeker. The fact that the number of refugees in Germany has decreased considerably since 2015 has done little to defuse the tensions. Last year, 222,683 migrants applied for asylum in Germany, 70 percent fewer applications than the previous year.

In the years since 2011, a lot of things have gone wrong in Germany's handling of refugees and migrants. After a phase of the "heartless head," as Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier puts it, came a brief period of the "headless heart." At first, the Europeans underestimated the crisis in Syria, and left the country's neighbors like Jordan in the lurch as they dealt with the spillover effects. The United Nations even had to partly decrease food aid. Then came the "welcoming culture," a well-meaning policy that had the side-effect of encouraging many more migrants to set off for Europe. But that phase ended after six months, with Germany and Europe shifting to policies of deterrence and of cutting the Continent off to migrants.

The consequences of the refugee crisis have been dramatic for the European Union, which now sees itself drifting apart. At first, Poland and Hungary refused to take in refugees. Now, other EU countries are following the same path. Currently, Italy, the country where the most migrants arrived, is behaving the most radically. Refugee policy in the country is determined by a right-wing populist interior minister.

Migrants are forced to wait on rescue ships at sea for days at a time because no European port is willing to allow them to come ashore. "Ethical pillars have been torn down," says Berlin-based social scientist Naika Foroutan. "Cracks are developing in our ideal image of a society that is cosmopolitan, liberal and humane. Europe is failing to meet its own standards, and that is creating enormous tension." Foroutan argues that is one of the reasons why the conflict over the refugees continues to escalate. Because what is happening in the Mediterranean and elsewhere is also reflects our own society and the decay of our own values.

A Policy Lacking in Plans and Morals

And Europe's refugee policy is indeed as lacking in plans as it is in morals. It puts the weakest at a disadvantage and gives preference to those who can afford the services of human-traffickers and are strong enough to make the dangerous crossing to Europe. Almost 70 percent of all the asylum-seekers who crossed via the Mediterranean Sea in 2017 were men. That's neither sensible nor fair. It's another reason why support for this policy is dwindling. With each week that passes, new ideas are developed and discarded. The applicable rules are being partly ignored and going it alone has become the order of the day for many EU countries. And as drastic as this may sound, refugees no longer have any legal certainty.

Refugees arriving via the Mediterranean
DER SPIEGEL

Refugees arriving via the Mediterranean

But it doesn't have to be that way. There are certainly solutions that would achieve better treatment of migrants and people in need of protection. The refugee crisis has doubtlessly become morally agonizing, David Miller, a philosopher at Oxford University told DER SPIEGEL in an interview published in July. "But it is not morally unsolvable." A policy that melds humanity and reason should be possible.

DER SPIEGEL spoke with migration policy experts, economists, political advisers, maritime rescue workers and refugees in Syria, Niger, Malta and Bavaria. In doing so, we were able to create a detailed overview of the most decisive issues. What emerged is a plea for better immigration and refugee policies.

In the Blind Spot: The Twahina Camp in Northern Syria

The tents are sewn together from shreds -- old blankets, sacks and tarps. Hundreds of them stretch as far as the eye can see. Children run between them. You can see the war in their faces. One little girl has clogged eyes and disheveled hair. She's spindle-thin and barefoot. "How old are you?" the reporter asks. She takes a pen and proudly writes 10 on a piece of paper.

Behind her, a reservoir is lined with palm trees. It's strangely beautiful, but deceptive. Cholera lurks in the water. Children have already been infected. There are no showers, no psychologists, and there is no electricity, no infirmary and no school here. Thousands of Syrian families who have fled from Aleppo, Homs and Hama live in the tent city, an unofficial camp that doesn't receive assistance from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Six Kurdish fighters stand guard at the entrance. It's an eerie place, like waking up on the first day after a global cataclysm.

1. More On-the-Ground Help
The UN's refugee agency and countries near the trouble spot need more money to better help people in need of protection.
2. Reestablishing Independence
Instead of sticking refugees in camps, they should be brought into the job market as fast as possible. Jobs should be created where the refugees are located.
3. Stronger Controls on External Borders
The EU needs to keep track of who enters by checking the identity of migrants and registering them.
4. Resettlement
For people facing religious persecution, there needs to be safe ways to get to Europe. With the help of the UNHCR, they could be determined in refugee camps.
5. Economic Development
EU companies should not be allowed to flood the African market with cheap subsidized products and weaken the local economy.
6. Save Lives
Europe has a duty to help shipwrecked persons and cannot leave this duty to private organizations.
7. Transit Centers
Within a few weeks of a person's arrival, EU experts check at these sites if they qualify to receive asylum. Those who do not meet the criteria for protection do not have the right to stay in Europe.
8. Repatriation Agreement
Europe needs to negotiate treaties with African countries of origin so that they are willing to take their citizens back.
9. Work Visas
Quotas for these could be an incentive for countries like Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria to agree to repatriation agreements.
10. Immigration Law
Those required to leave who arrived in Germany before a certain deadline should receive the right to stay and work.

Abdallah Ali used to have 22 sheep. He sits on a mattress on the floor inside a patchwork tent. It's now the most valuable possession he has. Ali, 47, the father of four sons and five daughters, looks like an old man. They used to be a normal family. Years ago. Back then, they were still living in their home village of Ukairibat. "We just want to go home," says Ali. But that's impossible, because the Shabiha militias, the Iranians and the Russians are all there. One knows, he says, what they do to people.

"Angelina Merkel." He offers a fatigued smile. Yes, he's heard of this woman from Germany who takes care of the Syrians. But there wasn't enough money to flee. He says the people who went to Germany were the ones with fields they could sell. It's all well and good that the Germans left their borders open. "But why don't people care about us?" Ali asks. "Who is going to care if all the people in this camp die tomorrow?"

A State of Purgatory

The war wrought devastation on Ali's family. They lost loved ones to the Assad regime's bombs, and later to Islamic State (IS). Others died serving in Syrian President Bashar Assad's army. They fled the fighting multiple times. For a while, they lived in the Islamic State's "caliphate," filled with fear, with the women hiding at home. Then the Kurds came. Ali's family has been living in the tent city at the reservoir for a year now. They sit on their mattresses in a state of purgatory, a world suspended between life and death.

Statistics show that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the way refugees are being treated. Take Syria, for example: 12 million people have been displaced by the war, with more than half of them still in the country. But how much is the international community spending on those people? "Almost nothing," says migration expert Collier. Of the other 5.5 million displaced Syrians, around 85 percent have fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. "For every euro that goes to a refugee there, we spend 135 euros on a refugee who made it to Europe," he says.

Collier believes the system is deeply unfair. "The right of asylum, the Geneva Conventions on Refugees and the UNHCR refugee aid organization date back to the Cold War, a period when the aim was to protect individual political dissidents," he says. A context in which millions of people are fleeing wars and, increasingly, also climate disasters, requires totally different responses.

So, what are our duties to refugees?

When you ask Collier, he likes to share an anecdote about a child who has fallen into a lake and can't swim. Of course, it is your duty to save that child and to ensure that he or she is placed in safe hands, he says. But you don't have to adopt the child.

In the context of the refugees, that means Europe has a duty to help these people, to rescue them from distress at sea, but has no moral obligation to provide them with the right of residence.

So, how can we best fulfill our responsibilities? Collier believes it is by paying closer attention to the countries bordering crisis-torn regions. He says the top priority needs to be ensuring that they keep their borders open. Otherwise, the displaced people will be trapped in the death zones, as has been the case time and again in Syria.

To that end, Collier is calling for the West's financial support of refugees to flow first and foremost to the countries near the crisis-afflicted areas. "Most refugees actually want to be as close to home as possible, in countries with a similar culture, language and religion," he says. Relocation to Europe would only make sense in isolated cases -- ones, for example, in which a person already has family there or for people who face political persecution.

Collier finds it unacceptable that refugees are hidden away in camps in inhospitable areas, and given tents and food packages. He finds the desolate camps, which he calls "human silos," undignified.

The situation in Jordan is indicative of just how unsuitable the current UNHCR offer is for a large number of refugees. About 80 percent of all Syrian refugees avoid the camps, instead preferring to stay in the cities and work there, unregistered and under the table, if they have to. This has led to discontent among the Jordanian population, which feels threatened by the cheap competition in the labor market.

What refugees need above all else, says Collier, are jobs to restore their autonomy. Here, too, he sees Europe as having an obligation. Instead of the usual camps, he envisages something more along the lines of temporary cities. Companies could outsource part of their production there and, in turn, obtain government funding. "We have the ability to move the work to the people today. It's totally crazy to think we have to get the refugees to where the jobs are," says Collier.

"We thought someone would help us," says Ali, sitting on his mattress at the Twahina Camp. A mobile medical bus now visits once a week. The American NGO Blumont also distributes food packages. But everyone complains it's not enough.

"I've sent everyone to school, including the girls," says Ali. He slides prayer beads through his fingers. "They should be able to be what they want." Ibtesam Ali, his oldest daughter, sits with alert eyes at the back of the tent, wrapped in a black chador. She's 19 years old and was always the best in her class. Her favorite subject is mathematics. She wanted to be a doctor, but the war arrived when she was in the sixth grade and she hasn't seen a school since. Ibtesam Ali wishes she had never experienced all this: the bombs, the dead and all the suffering. "It hurt at first. Now, it has already become a part of us." And it just won't go away. "It's a nightmare, a horrible life," she says, "we're prisoners. We sit on the floor and watch the time go by."

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