Pressure and Fences EU Wants To Seal Itself Off from Refugees
When it comes to describing the problems in Miltenberg in the German state of Bavaria, District Administrator Marco Scherf doesn’t know where to begin. In the past year, about 500 people from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa came to the largely rural district, along with around 1,500 refugees from Ukraine.
"There's no more housing, not enough teachers, not enough doctors, no daycare spots free," the Green Party politician says. "We have reached the limits of our capacity, and we don't even have enough resources here to take care of our own local residents." Because most of the refugees stay, he says, "we need to integrate them, and for this, we need the necessary resources and support."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2023 (February 3rd, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
In mid-January, Scherf wrote a letter to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in which he sought to draw attention to the "extremely precarious situation." He wrote: "It is time that the federal government puts the subject of refugees back at the very top of the agenda." He argues that this should include an "ambitious foreign policy" aiming to better manage and limit migration.
The fact that a leading local politician with the Greens, a traditionally left-leaning party, is calling for migration to his district to be limited shows the extent to which the situation has become overloaded. Across the country, district administrators and mayors are complaining that the numbers of refugees are exceeding their capacities. And the situation is getting worse. According to the German Interior Ministry, there has been an especially "elevated and dynamic influx of arrivals" since September.
In the past year, more asylum-seekers arrived in Germany than at any time in the past six years, since the peak of the refugee crisis. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 217,774 people filed initial applications for asylum in Germany in 2022, more than twice as many as in 2020, and that's without counting the more than 1 million refugees who have come from Ukraine.
The Mood Could Tip
Although the mood isn't as explosive as it was in 2015 and 2016, when hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries made their way to Europe, that could change again quickly. Scherf says there have already been death threats against his staff and himself. Incidents like the one a week ago, in which a stateless Palestinian man stabbed two teenagers in the city of Brokstedt, in the northern state of Schleswig Holstein, are sharpening the debate. The suspect had been convicted several times previously for violent crimes.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party (AFD) is up to 15 percent in national opinion polls, more than 4 percentage points higher than they were in the last federal election. The party can expect considerable gains in the state election in Berlin in a week. This is one reason why the debate has thus far been restrained. The parties of the federal government coalition in Germany – the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) – want to avoid a new national debate about refugees, because that could strengthen the AFD.
The German government has pinned its hopes on Europe. In their coalition agreement, the current German government had listed a "fundamental reform of the European asylum system" as a goal. Germany's municipalities are also counting on Brussels. Reinhard Sager of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), the president of the German Association of Counties, an umbrella organization for the country's district leaders, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that the federal government needs to do much more to distribute refugees across the European Union. "The EU needs to enact a regulation so that people who have already found refuge somewhere shouldn't all be sent onward to Germany because the social standards here are the highest."
The opportunity will arise this coming week, when the EU's heads of state and government meet for a special summit on migration, proof of how urgent the problem is in other EU countries as well. But it is unclear whether Germany will be able to push through its demands. Fundamental reforms of the kind Berlin is hoping for aren't on the meeting's agenda.
Officially, it's about the Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is to be negotiated by the Commission, the member states and the European Parliament by the start of next year, but also about "distributing responsibility fairly among member states and acting in solidarity in managing migrant flows." But most of the countries just want to talk about better border security and faster deportations.
Berlin Is Isolated
The German government has set itself the goal of "ensuring that other EU states assume more responsibility and comply with EU law." To that end, the coalition wants encourage other EU member countries to take in more refugees. But Berlin is pretty much isolated in that stance right now. "Apart from Luxembourg and Portugal, no one else in the EU shares the German approach," say several EU diplomats.
The mood among the 27 member states has changed in recent years. It's not just Eastern Europeans who are pushing for the deterrence and exclusion of migrants. Right-wing populist parties are now setting the tone in Italy, where the post-fascist Brothers of Italy are in power, and in Sweden, where the xenophobic Sweden Democrats are propping up the government.
The summit will therefore focus on how to more speedily deport people who don't have a right to residency status in the EU. The Swedish rotating presidency of the European Council has stated that this is one of its most important goals in the migration debate. On this issue, it is easier to reach an agreement, at least superficially, because the problem is obvious.
In 2021, around 340,500 people were told to leave the EU. But ultimately, only around one-fifth actually did. During the first half of 2022, about 19 percent of the 179,900 non-EU citizens who were required to leave the EU left. It is seen as consensus in Brussels that this problem is reducing citizens' acceptance for the intake of refugees. But that doesn't mean there is an agreement on the solution.
The deportations don't just fail because of resistance on the part of migrants. Often, the countries of origin are unwilling to take their citizens back. In a letter to the heads of state and government in advance of the summit, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote that migration "should take a central position in a comprehensive concept for the EU's relationships with its partner countries." But the views about how that should happen differ.
A Majority Support Pressure
At last week's meeting of the EU's interior and justice ministers in Stockholm, a majority was in favor of increasing pressure on the countries of origin. The EU, the draft for the summit's final declaration argued, should use all available levers and tools, "including development, trade and visas." This approach is supported not just by Sweden, but also countries including Austria and the Netherlands. The EU member states agree that this is an important instrument, says Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard.
European Commission President Ursula von der LeyenFoto: SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire / action press
The paper argues that Article 25a of the Visa Code could be "one of the most important instruments for improving the collaboration with third countries on the issue of returns and readmissions." It argues that this could, for example, involve extending the deadline for processing visa applications from certain countries or adding fees to increase the pressure on unwilling countries. The states with which cooperation has been difficult include Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
Critics object that adding much more pressure would strain relationships with countries with whom a partnership is desired for political reasons. The Commission, however, argues that even just threatening to sharpen visa rules could affect change.
Von der Leyen's proposals go further. She's calling for countries to mutually recognize deportation orders. Anyone who has received an order to leave Poland could then also be deported from Germany. It's unclear if this is legally possible. German courts have ruled that even deportations to Greece can be illegal.
The Brussels proposal has met with little enthusiasm in the German government. Although German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser says, "We need agreements with countries of origin," she adds that she doesn't believe they should be accomplished via threats. "We also need to offer something, for example, by easing entry requirements for skilled workers or students."
Stalled Deportation Efforts
So far, Berlin has little to show in this regard. Germany's governing coalition announced a "repatriation offensive" in its coalition agreement. But little has happened thus far. Despite the increase in immigration, the number of deportations only increased slightly last year. According to the Interior Ministry, 12,945 foreigners were deported in 2022 – only about one-quarter of those who were meant to be "immediately obliged to leave the country."
The violence in Brokstedt has heated up the debate. "Especially when it comes to violent offenders, we should explore all possibilities for deporting them," says Faeser.
However, she does not suggest how that process can be improved for stateless offenders.
Residents of a refugee shelter in Berlin: Increased pressure on the countries of origin is meant to make it easier to carry out deportations.Foto: Julia Steinigeweg / DER SPIEGEL
The CDU sees this as an opportunity to exploit the subject of deportations politically. "Those who are not entitled to asylum must leave the country again," says the CDU's party and parliamentary group leader, Friedrich Merz. The liberal wing of the CDU also calls for the deportation of criminals. CDU politician Serap Güler said it must be clear: "Whoever breaks the law here must be aware that, in doubt, if our law allows it, he or she will have to leave again." Güler argues that the German federal government still needs to determine, for example, if deportations to safe regions of Syria can be carried out. In the coalition, that is seen as impossible.
Daniel Günther of the CDU, the governor of Schleswig Holstein, the state where Brokstedt is located, is demanding something similar. "Anyone who misbehaves here needs to reckon with not being able to stay," he says. "We need to think of how we can lower the hurdles for withdrawing a residence permit – in the event of a serious crime, for example." He argues that anyone who is sentenced to a one-year prison sentence should also lose his or her residency status.
It is fitting then that the "special commissioner for migration agreements" is taking office this week. Joachim Stamp, who is associated with the left wing of the FDP, is trying to manage expectations.
No License To Deport
The FDP politician claims to be a good communicator and someone who can bring people together. It remains to be seen whether that will succeed in the complicated structure of the coalition government though. His goal of elevating the subject above party politics could be difficult.
In advance of his appointment, Stamp said that he has no "license" to deport. And even if he did have it, the legal hurdles would be high. At the moment, Germany cannot deport people to Syria or Afghanistan. Half of all asylum-seekers come from there.
Germany's states are responsible for the deportation procedures. But they don't always have the will to carry them out. In December, the coalition government in the city-state of Berlin, which is comprised of the SPD, Green and far-left Left parties, had a bitter dispute about what to do about rejected asylum-seekers from Moldova. The SPD's plans called for about 600 of the 3,400 Moldovans meant to be deported to be brought back to their homeland.
Special Commissioner Joachim StampFoto: FDP
Under pressure from the Greens and the Left Party, Interior Minister Iris Spranger of the SPD ultimately announced that deportations would not take place over the winter – despite the need for space in the emergency shelters. About one week later, however, a charter flight scheduled by multiple states took off for Moldova's capital, Chisinau, carrying seven Moldovans deported by Berlin, all multiple offenders, among others. The head of the Berlin state Left party accused Spranger of "perfidious" actions.
As Germany discusses deportations, the debate in the EU continues to swirl. Austria has called on the Commission to finance the construction of fences on the EU's external border. According to diplomats, a majority of the member states support this suggestion.
The Commission has thus far been rejecting this. Commissioner of the Interior Ylva Johansson said that the money for the fence would create financial gaps elsewhere. But that rejection doesn't sound as categorical as it had been a year ago.