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.
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.
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.
'A Paradigm Shift'
"The right of residence was a paradigm shift," says Minister of State in the Federal Chancellery Maria Böhmer. Böhmer, the government's commissioner for integration, is among the innovators within the CDU. So is Christine Haderthauer, a member of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and Bavaria's minister for social affairs. Haderthauer was once considered a hardliner. The idea of helping refugees who were supposed to be deported become more integrated would have been inconceivable in Bavaria years ago. Now she speaks proudly about a pilot project providing German language instruction to asylum seekers and tolerated individuals in 40 communities. The Haderthauer model is all the rage in the CDU/CSU, and it has piqued the interest of state interior ministers nationwide.
The same trend towards a more welcoming policy has continued in recent years. Today, for instance, asylum seekers only have to wait nine months instead of a year before being allowed to work (unless the employment agency refuses to issue a work permit on the grounds that it would be detrimental to the local employment market, as in the case of Iranian engineer Sina Alinia). And now Bavaria and Saxony are the only states that still require asylum seekers to remain within an administrative region, the so-called residency requirement. Some states are now allowing asylum seekers to travel to neighboring states, that is, from Lower Saxony to Bremen, or from Brandenburg to Berlin.
The fact that even the CDU/CSU has softened on immigration issues is partly attributable to demographic changes. Germany, as one of the world's top exporting nations, cannot dispense with refugees if it doesn't know where it will get its future trainees and skilled workers.
And interior ministers, especially those with the CDU, have learned that being tough on asylum seekers is often politically more costly than advantageous. In many cases, deportations have caused resentment among the party's traditional voters: church congregations, local dignitaries and middle-class citizens who don't understand why, after so many years, their party suddenly wants to see a nice immigrant family deported. Even in the election campaign, when Interior Minister Friedrich was recently expected to launch into a heated debate over immigration policy with Green Party Chairman Cem Özdemir and SPD parliamentary group secretary Thomas Oppermann, it turned out their respective positions weren't that different.
How Do We Regulate EU Borders?
This sense of consensus is a good thing. After all, a modern, cosmopolitan country should be more welcoming and warm-hearted, and offer asylum to more people. But the conflicts that were the subject of such bitter disputes in the past haven't gone away; they have merely been concealed. And the more asylum seekers there are, the more these conflicts come back to the fore.
The rising numbers of refugees, for instance, make it impossible to sustain the practice of housing asylum seekers in apartments in regular neighborhoods. Instead, municipalities are once again renting remote, empty buildings in the countryside, where asylum seekers already feel like they've been deported. Some refugees are also being housed in containers, which many don't want to see in their neighborhoods.
Sometimes residents start consulting zoning maps and calling their attorneys the moment they hear of a plan to house asylum-seekers in their neighborhood. This was recently the case in Hamburg's Lokstedt neighborhood, where plans to build an emergency shelter in an industrial zone failed.
The rising numbers are once again drawing attention to the old core issues: How many refugees should Germany accept? How many are too many? How many are truly entitled to asylum, and how many are abusing the right?
The Federal Police has been concerned about the numbers for months. Its mission, together with immigration authorities, is to prevent illegal entry and to deport foreigners who are not allowed to be in Germany. But this is increasingly a losing battle, because several countries are no longer complying with the Dublin Regulation.
'The System Is Breaking Down'
The system is breaking down. In 2011, German border agents noted 21,156 illegal entries. Last year the number increased to 25,670, and this year there had already been 23,000 illegal entries by the end of September. "We now have uncontrolled immigration," says a German Federal Police officer. Laws and agreements are being ignored in places like Italy, Poland and Greece.
On Aug. 23, the Italian police detained 27 Syrians and one Afghan on board the Eurocity train from Verona to Munich. By law, they should all have been entered into the Eurodac fingerprint database for asylum seekers, since they had filed asylum applications in Italy. Oddly enough, however, not one of them appeared in Eurodac. "The Italians are no longer fingerprinting many of their asylum seekers," says a frustrated German Federal Police officer.
This is to prevent other EU countries from immediately sending them back to Italy, as provided under the Dublin Regulation. Italy also sometimes gives refugees €500 and provides them with a tourist visa, or "titolo di viaggio." About 300 of these phony tourists are now living on the street in Hamburg, dependent on the charity of churches and other aid organizations.
Different Paths to Germany
Every day, several hundred refugees from the Russian Federation, mostly Chechens, try to enter Poland. By the end of September 2013, 13,492 had ended up in Germany, an increase of 754 percent over the first nine months of 2012. Because Poland can't handle that many Chechens, the authorities allow the refugees to continue on to Germany -- even if it's a violation of the Dublin Regulation.
In Chechnya traffickers spread the rumor that Germany is greeting Chechen refugees with open arms and paying them a €4,000 welcome bonus. They guarantee refugee status on websites like transfer.vov.ru, and when asked if refugees who are not being politically persecuted will run into any problems, they say: "Absolutely not. All you have to do is prepare a decent story. And our immigration lawyers take care of that." The traffickers charge a fee of €8,000 for the service, which suggests that those coming to the EU aren't exactly the weakest and poorest.
German authorities have been barred from sending asylum seekers back to Greece since early 2011, even when it is clear that they entered the EU through Greece. That's because the conditions are too poor in Greece and the treatment of refugees too inhumane. German courts have also blocked returns to Italy in more than 200 cases. According to the Frankfurt Administrative Court, refugees are likely to face "inhumane and humiliating treatment" there. Some refugees are also claiming ignorance about how they entered Germany, so that authorities have no way of knowing which country to return them to.
The Roma Problem
In a report, Markus Ulbig (CDU), the state interior minister in Saxony, suggests there are serious abuses of the asylum by Roma entering the EU from the Balkans. Last year, Serbia was the top country of origin among asylum seekers in Germany, with Macedonia in fifth and Kosovo in 10th place. Close to 15,000 people came from those three countries, and many were members of the Roma ethnic group.
In the Macedonian capital Skopje, the interior minister went on record as saying that the reason for the rise in Roma emigration to Germany was a July 2012 ruling by the German Constitutional Court that asylum seekers must be given more money so that they can live in decent conditions. The director of Catholic Charities Roma project in Skopje is also critical of the money Germany had temporarily been paying Roma if they agreed to return home voluntarily, arguing that it provided an additional incentive to those seeking asylum in Germany.
Of course, there are many cases in which Roma have been denied rights and treated with hostility, which makes verification all the more difficult. The fact that most Roma immigrate before the winter may suggest that they travel north primarily for reasons of sustenance, not persecution. This leads to complaints among Germans, including Interior Minister Friedrich, about "poverty refugees" who are merely out to take advantage of the German social welfare system.
Friedrich may be technically right in many cases, but it also suggests that, while it is noble to flee from war and persecution, it is reprehensible to do so for reasons of poverty, hunger, disease and despair. This forces everyone through the same bottleneck of having to argue they are being politically persecuted. It leads to made-up stories, "toleration" and refugees being placed into holding patterns. This is one of the reasons the current system isn't working.
A Man with a Plan
When it comes to German asylum cases, all roads lead to the BAMF office in Nuremberg. The agency has 1.9 million asylum files, and a 442-gigabyte asylum database called "Maris." BAMF head Manfred Schmidt knows there are no streamlined, quick solutions to asylum problems. But he doesn't hide behind the lawmakers' rules. In fact, he has a proposal.
The BAMF president wants to administer an entry examination to asylum-seekers before they can apply for asylum. It would be a preliminary step, so that not every refugee is driven into an often hopeless asylum application process simply because it's the only way to remain in Germany.
"We have to reject 70 percent of the applications," says Schmidt. "They're mostly people who have left their countries because of economic hardship, and then they encounter our asylum process, in which economic reasons to flee their countries are not considered valid." As a result, he says, they tell stories that are not credible and are rejected. Or they tell the truth, which is that they have come to Germany looking for work because there is no work at home -- and are rejected.
"These include students and highly qualified skilled workers, but because their trafficker has told them they should request 'asylum' and throw away their papers, they become trapped within the system." In his opinion, this is "schizophrenic," because Germany is in urgent need of skilled workers.
A Different Road to Residency
This is why he recommends a preliminary examination focused on the question: Is this foreigner a skilled worker, or could he or she easily become one? If so, could he or she be given a residence permit as a labor immigrant?
Minister of State Böhmer is also receptive to the concept. "I don't want qualified workers to feel that applying for asylum is their only option," says Böhmer. "Part of the welcoming culture is not to allow them to head in the wrong direction."
Saxony Interior Minister Ulbig agrees. "The whole country is clamoring for skilled workers, but highly qualified asylum seekers are wasting away in the shelters." Ulbig envisions a deviation from current asylum cases, a "qualification relay" into the labor market.
This benefits only a portion of asylum seekers. A BAMF analysis for 2010 to 2012 concludes that more than a quarter of asylum seekers have attended high school and 10 percent have had at least some higher education. On the other hand, more than 40 percent are illiterate or have only an elementary school education. Still, the Schmidt proposal would be a start, and because it would primarily attract refugees with sufficient qualifications, it wouldn't exert an unwanted magnet effect.
This goes hand in hand with a demand being made by refugee associations: the abolition of the priority review, with which asylum seekers and tolerated individuals must contend during their first four years. During this time, they can only qualify for jobs for which the local employment agency is unable to find applicants from the EU. This creates enormous costs and leads to stories like that of Iranian engineer Alinia. It is also difficult to justify in a country with less than 200,000 asylum seekers and tolerated individuals.
There are plenty of small adjustments that can be made -- but each has its own complex moral arithmetic. Take the right of residence for young people, for example. By attempting to clear up their status, they could compromise their parents' made-up stories. Should the children be punished for protecting their parents, or should the parents be spared, even though they deceived and lied to the authorities for years? And then there are the "transit jumpers" at the Munich airport. If Germany introduces a transit visa for Egyptians, their numbers will decline. But this would also be a political insult to Egypt.
Reform Needed for the Dublin Regulation
One area urgently in need of reform is the Dublin Regulation, which forces countries on Europe's periphery into a defensive position. Because of their long EU external borders, they should in fact be required to accept most refugees. But because these countries -- Italy, Poland and especially Greece -- are utterly overwhelmed as a result, they undermine the regulation.
In theory, the Greeks receive assistance from Germany in return for this imbalance. In reality, this September, the German Federal Police only sent seven of its 30,000 officers to Greece to serve with Frontex, the EU agency charged with securing the external borders.
And what about financial assistance to care for refugees? "The Federal Ministry of the Interior has not issued any direct payments yet to support the Greek asylum system," says a spokesman in Berlin. The European Union paid about €34 million ($46 million) from 2008 to 2012, or less than €7 million a year. "The poorest ones on the edge of Europe are supposed to do the work for us, the rich ones, in the middle. But we couldn't care less about how they're supposed to do that," says an officer with the German Federal Police.
Greece responds by making life there intolerable for refugees. "What the Greeks are doing is a disgrace for Europe, but we're also leaving them alone with the problem," says SPD domestic policy expert Wiefelspütz, noting that the situation cannot be allowed to continue. Not in Hungary, where pregnant female refugees remain locked up in detention centers until their delivery dates. Not in Italy, where many asylum seekers are recognized but are then sent into the streets. And not in Poland, where several refugee dormitories have already been set on fire.
Europe as a 'Shunting Yard'
The Dublin Regulation has transformed Europe into a "shunting yard," says Frankfurt asylum law attorney Dominik Bender. Countries in the north, including Germany, are sending refugees back to the south, where they often have no livelihood. "The promise of protection is broken a thousand times over. The Dublin system has failed," says Bender, arriving at the same conclusion as many a Federal Police officer, albeit for other reasons. At the Federal Police, they believe that "Dublin" has failed because the refugees are not being shunted off on time, and because Germany is already accepting more refugees today than Italy, Greece and Poland combined.
Nevertheless, the German government is clinging to the Dublin Regulation. The German government would rather trust a disintegrating system because it benefits Germany, than to take the risk of it being replaced with something else. When Pope Francis declared the day after the boat accident off the coast of Lampedusa to be a "day of weeping" and European Parliament President Martin Schulz called it "a disgrace" that the "EU left Italy alone for so long," German Interior Minister Friedrich insisted the Dublin Regulation would "of course remain unchanged."
Friedrich also said the situation needs to be improved in the countries where refugees come from -- a hope so pious only God could fulfill it. Even politicians in the CDU/CSU now question whether this is the way to defend the Dublin Regulation, amid the growing pressure from EU countries in the south. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso plans to place the subject of asylum at the top of the agenda during the upcoming EU summit at the end of the month.
Refugee organizations like Pro Asyl want the EU to implement what it calls a "free shop principle," under which each refugee could apply for asylum in only one country, but in the country of his or her choosing. As humane as this sounds, it could have an undesired effect: a competition among EU countries over which country is most effective at deterring refugees.
A contingent solution, similar to the way refugees are distributed among the states in Germany, would be more effective: the more productive the country, the more refugees it accepts. This would avert a run on two or three especially popular countries in the north.
Experts, however, fear a bureaucratic monster. Perhaps it would be better if EU countries were to allocate money to each other, with financial compensation being paid to offset asylum costs. "It's all incredibly complicated, but we have to address the problem," says an SPD politician in Berlin. The asylum system cannot be allowed to continue in its current form. Not in Germany, not in Europe, not for the authorities and, most of all, not for the refugees. This, at least, is something on which almost everyone agrees.