German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open her country’s door to refugees fleeing war last year – Germany registered 1.1 million asylum seekers by December 31, 2015 – won her the coveted Time’s Person of the Year award, as well as a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
That was 2015. In 2016, five of Germany’s 16 states will hold elections in the build-up to the next federal vote in 2017. The government’s recent decisions – from reinstating border controls to imposing restrictions on Syrian refugees – makes us wonder: Is it doubt, resentment and fear, OR is Merkel’s welcoming stance threatening to shake up the German political landscape (which could be fatal for her as her stance on refugees has provoked a rebellion within her own party), which is forcing the country to take U-turn after U-turn on the policies that had distinguished it from the rest of Europe?
When Germany opened its gates to Syrian asylum-seekers in August 2015, it was the first country to suspend the Dublin Regulation which forces refugees to seek asylum in the first European country in which they set foot. It was proclaimed that the “compassionate country will not allow refugees to be met by hateful slogans or alcohol-fueled loudmouths,” and that “all asylum-seekers deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.”
“We want to tangibly reduce the number of refugees arriving. With an approach focused on the German, European and global level, we will succeed in regulating and limiting migration.”
For about two weeks, Merkel boldly insisted that Germany could keep the crisis under control. However, in September 2015, Merkel’s interior minister announced the reinstated passport controls:
“No one can fault Germany with regards to its welcoming culture. But we cannot have the situation where someone who is supposed to be taken in by a neighboring state of Germany says, ‘I prefer to go to Germany’. Sharing means sharing. And that must be implemented.”
In November 2015, Germany’s interior ministry announced that those fleeing Syrian civil war will not be given refugee status. Syrians would only be allowed to enter Germany for one year, would be barred from having family members join them, and would only enjoy “subsidiary protection” which limits their rights as refugees, it added.
Describing the new regime as “a win for security and order for Germany,” Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, decreed that Berlin would start to fall in line with other governments in the European Union:
“In this situation other countries are only guaranteeing a limited stay. We’ll now do the same with Syrians in the future. We’re telling them ‘you will get protection, but only so-called subsidiary protection that is limited to a period and without any family unification’. ”
Merkel’s junior coalition partner promptly washed its hands of the policy shift, forcing de Maizière to later backtrack. “Things remain as they are until there is a decision. No change,” he said.
In mid-September, Germany reintroduced border controls with Austria, after the influx of asylum seekers raised concerns about housing and infrastructure. It is among six Schengen members to have reinstated temporary border checks in the previously passport-free area. This January, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark warned Greece that it had six weeks to stop migrants crossing from Turkey, or it will be “quarantined” outside the European Union’s borderless Schengen area.
Police in Austria, which is the last point of transit before Germany, say Germany has been turning back hundreds of would-be refugees every day. A police spokesperson told The Independent:
“Since the New Year, it’s been about 200 a day and getting higher. German politicians seem to have decided to act with more firmness. The difficult thing (for us) is to explain if a migrant asks: Why can’t I travel further now if my friend could still do it last week?”
TOUGHER SCREENING PROCEDURES
In December 2015, Germany took a U-turn on its asylum screening policy when it reintroduced tougher screening procedures for anyone seeking asylum—backtracking on a previous decision from November 2014 to simplify the process. German Interior Ministry declared that people seeking asylum in Germany will now have to follow “individual screening procedures.” Interior ministry spokesman Tobias Plate told Newsweek:
“We don’t have any specific information that there might be a terrorist among [those] people coming to Germany, but we need to make sure that we understand who is coming.”
Following the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, Merkel announced new measures to deny the right of asylum for those who have committed crimes or are on probation.
“When crimes are committed and people place themselves outside the law, there must be consequences… This is in the interests of the citizens of Germany, but also in the interests of the great majority of the refugees who are here.”
At the moment, providing their lives are not at risk in their own countries, those who have been sentenced to at least three years’ imprisonment can be sent home.
CHANGE OF HEART
Refugees arriving in Germany six months ago were met by cheering crowds at railway stations and crowds of volunteers; residents had generously gave their time, money and even their homes to the asylum seekers. However, after a summer of optimism, xenophobia has taken over. The country’s voters are turning sour on refugees and Angela Merkel.
As German towns scrambled to provide housing, education and employment for a million refugees, German public support also waned. Various opinion polls highlight growing unease with the refugee crisis, and Merkel’s handling of it.
Nonetheless, there are always two sides to every story. An Op-Ed in The Guardian reads:
“I recently read that Criminality is on the rise in German towns that have accepted refugees. But it’s not the refugees who are responsible for this crime wave: Germans in these towns have been committing arson, damaging property and attacking refugees. In other words, Germans have been making their own worst fears come true. Often the fear of loss leads to the very loss we fear – a principle that holds true not only for jealous lovers but also, it seems, for those who turn to violence out of fear that the refugees will cost them their safety and peace.”
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