Reaching the Limit 'The Number of Immigrants Has To Fall'

In a guest editorial, Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor, both from the center-left Social Democrats, argue that Germany cannot accept an unlimited number of refugees.
Von Sigmar Gabriel und Frank-Walter Steinmeier
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both of the center-left Social Democratic Party: We must avoid overstraining Germans' preparedness to help.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both of the center-left Social Democratic Party: We must avoid overstraining Germans' preparedness to help.

Foto: Maurizio Gambarini/ picture alliance / dpa

What do we owe those who are threatened by war and violence? What and how much can we ultimately handle? At what point do we reach limits of what we can endure? Each of these questions is a legitimate one. But if the debate only runs between two poles -- "We can do it" on the one side and "The boat is full" on the other -- then the issue of refugees will split our society. We need an honest discussion about realistic approaches.

The following ascertainments must be part of any honest discussion:

  • Yes, the vast majority of those coming to Europe are in fact fleeing war zones or regions abutting those war zones.
  • Yes, we have a large number of refugees from the Western Balkans. They stand no chance of being granted asylum. They must quickly return to their homes.
  • Yes, despite the unprecedented helpfulness of the Germans and the spectacular work of the communities, we must still do all that we can to ensure that the number of immigrants coming into Germany falls again. Because in the long term, we will not be able to take in and integrate more than a million refugees every year.

Honesty must also include the admission that we will not be able to influence the dynamic of integration solely by means of German domestic policy, and certainly not without the help of Europe. Even then, we will not be able to reverse the trend overnight.

Germany has acted. And now we are taking steps to reduce the burden on states and communities. With our new asylum legislation, we have created national preconditions necessary to provide those in need of protection with the help they need. In doing so, we have not disregarded the rule of law and the fundamental rights guaranteed in our constitution.

European Solutions Needed

It is also clear, however, that we must work persistently and decisively on international, and especially European, solutions so that the pressure on Germany can fall once again. For that to happen, we will need an even greater conviction that national egotism offers no way out but that acting together is useful to everyone.

The decision by the EU to distribute 120,000 refugees across Europe is good, but it does not go far enough. We need a lasting European formula for allocating refugees.

We have functioning European institutions, but they are not set up for the onslaught of refugees currently being experienced. Frontex needs more personnel in order to secure the EU's external borders, and it needs to be expanded to become a European border protection agency. A joint initiative together with Turkey to secure borders along the eastern Mediterranean is also long overdue. With the European asylum support agency EASO, we already have an embryonic European asylum agency. Here, too, we should undertake courageous steps toward integration.

We need to support Greece and Italy with the creation of "European Arrival Centers." Arriving refugees must consistently be registered here and then fairly distributed throughout the EU.

Support for other Countries

But European solutions can only apply if we reach agreements with key countries in the European neighborhood -- Turkey in particular. To this end, the European Commission has proposed an action plan which we need to back by way of further bilateral dialogue on migration.

We must provide support to those countries which have taken in the largest share of refugees. In addition to Turkey, this includes Jordan and Lebanon. With our help, we succeeded in New York in increasing financial assistance to international humanitarian aid organizations by $1.8 billion for refugee relief.

The most important and sustainable task in our foreign policy is to combat the refugee crisis where it is being created. That's why we are using all of our energy to promote political solutions for the major crises and conflict regions in the Middle East and North Africa. This includes talks with Russia, which played a constructive role in the formation of the nuclear deal with Iran. We must prevent a situation in which state structures in Syria either implode or explode for good, leading even more people to head towards Europe.

Above all, though: We will only achieve the understanding and trust we need if we speak honestly about what is truly possible. That is why we need confidence and realism. It is only with confidence that we can mobilize the creative energy of politicians and society needed to take advantage of the major opportunity represented by the integration of these people. And only with realism will we be able to implement our humanitarian goals in practice.

People in our country will only accept our policies on the long term if we avoid overwhelming their willingness to help. And we will only achieve acceptance if the people in our country do not feel neglected and if their very real needs and problems are taken seriously.

We are at a crossroads: between a continent once again divided by tollgates, fences and national egotism. And a continent that has succeeded in finding common answers: with a joint European asylum policy and a coordinated approach to combatting the root causes of this flight. A continent that is honest with itself and tackles this huge challenge with a clear view and with no illusions.