With the number of refugees on the rise, admission centers in Germany for asylum seekers are overcrowded. Calls for stricter border controls by Bavaria's leader, Horst Seehofer, have triggered a controversial debate.
In an ideal world, border controls between Germany and Austria in particular would be reintroduced, if it was up to Horst Seehofer, the leader of the German state of Bavaria. That is, if the amount of refugees who enter Bavaria – and Germany – via Italy can't be reduced.
Seehofer insists that Italy has an obligation to register refugees, and enter their fingerprints in the database Eurodac – to guarantee that refugees can be identified in Germany and sent back to Italy. Italy's current failure to do these things, Seehofer claims, is a violation of current European Union law. The plans Seehofer and his Bavarian cabinet have proposed also include a visa requirement for people from Balkan states and rigid quotas for refugee admission across the EU.
Current EU rules on refugees
Border controls between most member states of the European Union have been abolished- apart from snap samples. In theory, more than 400 million Europeans can largely travel freely in the EU. That's because of the so-called Schengen agreement, which was signed in the 1990s in the small town of Schengen near Luxembourg. That leaves the states along the EU's external borders, like France, Spain and Italy, with the brunt of the problem of border controls.
Those countries are subject to the so-called Dublin Regulation. It stipulates that asylum applications have to be filed in the state where a refugee first enters the European Union. The idea was to make sure that asylum applications can only be filed in one EU member state. But in light of the enormous numbers of refugees arriving from current crisis regions, that regulation has been criticized as lacking in solidarity –because countries on the EU's southern borders are left alone in dealing with refugees. In addition, asylum seekers are supposed to stay in countries that are considered politically 'safe'.
In order to prevent higher numbers of immigrants from entering the EU illegally, the Schengen agreement has been reformed once before. The European Parliament, the EU Commission and the EU Council negotiated for two years – before they agreed in June 2013 to allow temporary passport controls under certain conditions.
Strong political 'headwind'
Horst Seehofer is not just the leader of Bavaria; he is also the chairman of the CSU party – making him and his party a coalition member in the German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with the CDU and SPD parties. That explains why his calls for stricter controls along the borders can't just be regarded and dismissed as pure populism.
Many heavily criticize Seehofer's plans, however. The organization ProAsyl says "Europe and Germany have failed when it comes to refugee policies." The Protestant Church in Germany warns that Seehofer's proclamations could push migrants even further into the arms of human traffickers. Volker Jung, the president of the Protestant Church in Germany, says it was high time the long-announced European refugee conference was implemented so that a solidarity-based admission system can be set up.
"A culture of humanity must not stop on the borders," said the interior minister of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jäger (SPD). His view is shared by German Social Democrats. The chairwoman of Germany's Greens, Simone Peter, stated in an interview with 'Rheinische Post' newspaper: "Those who want to reintroduce barriers in Europe betray the European Union ideal."
The German government's human rights commissioner, Christoph Strässer (SPD), has also criticized Horst Seehofer and the CSU party. Strässer announced he would be travelling to Serbia and Bosnia to get an idea of the human rights situation in those countries. The reason for his trip is a planned reclassification of those countries.
German reaction and plans
According to plans by Germany‘s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere (CDU), Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia are to be classified as 'safe countries of origin'. That would mean that asylum seekers coming from those countries wouldn't have to be accepted by Germany any more either.
Apart from those plans, the German government opposes Seehofer's and the CSU's demands. So far, statements on the issue published by the Federal Interior Ministry have referred to upcoming votes on EU level: on the question of how to curb human traffickers' activities more effectively, and of how to step up support for countries of transit and of origin most affected by high numbers of refugees. German Interior Minister de Maiziere in a speech to parliament announced his willingness to think about whether certain EU countries could take in more refugees - temporarily and "on a voluntary basis." The German government estimates that by the end of this year, some 200,000 people will have filed asylum applications in Germany. In light of such numbers, the debate about how to deal with refugees will likely continue.