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Migrants stuck on EU doorstep: What is Germany doing?

March 2, 2020

Turkish President Erdogan has effectively scrapped the refugee accord with the EU, threatening that millions will come. Refugees are appealing to Merkel for help, but Berlin remains firm that the EU's borders are closed.

A picture taken from Pazarkule shows a group of migrants wait on no man's land between Turkey and Greece
Image: Reuters/H. Aldemir

The images from the Greek-Turkish border are shocking. Thousands of refugees and migrants crowd in front of rolls of barbed wire. Greek police fire tear gas and do everything possible to prevent them from entering the European Union.

Some refugees hold signs asking for help from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After all, the chancellor rescued refugees in Hungary from a similar situation by letting them come to Germany. Refugees on the border with Greece are now hoping for the same.

But Germany in 2020 is not the country it was in 2015. Looking back, Merkel acknowledges there was a "loss of control." The chancellor has since described the open borders that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to pour into the country as a "mistake" that should not be repeated.

Many things have happened since 2015. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become increasingly popular in Germany and right-wing terrorism appears to be on the rise.

Route into EU remains closed

On Monday, Merkel hosted representatives from religious communities and migrant organizations at an integration summit in the chancellery. The focus of the meeting was on how to combat right-wing extremism and how to ease the fears of people with immigrant roots who live in Germany.

Migrants who want to cross into Greece from Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing shout slogans behind rolls of barbed wire
Groups of migrants on Turkey's Pazarkule border to Greece stand behind rolls of barbed wireImage: Reuters/A. Avramidis

The chancellor knows all too well that the situation could quickly change if another refugee crisis were to come to Germany now.

"We are seeing refugees and migrants who are being told on the Turkish side that the route to the EU is now open — and of course it is not," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert underscored at a press conference on Monday in Berlin.

Read more: Opinion: Without a migrant deal with Turkey, the EU is naked

Germany also hasn't called on Greece to open the border and let migrants into the country. Instead, Germany will "do everything that it can politically in order to de-escalate an extremely difficult situation."

Germany not giving up on the deal

Seibert added that communication is crucial and the only path worth pursuing, to "stabilize the situation again."

Merkel has already spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. More generally, she was in "close contact with European leaders," her spokesman added.

Migrants sit on a road side near Turkey's Ipsala border crossing with Greece
Refugees who were told that the EU borders were open are now forced to spend the night outside in the coldImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

Seibert also stressed that the German government remains convinced that the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement is good for both sides and assumes that it will continue to be adhered to.

"We are currently experiencing a situation that is not in line with the spirit of the accord. But we also have not heard any termination of the agreement either," Seibert said. "We assume that the accord — which as I said, has value for both Europe and Turkey — will be implemented."

Refugees as political pawns

What sounds like a motivational slogan is above all the German government's attempt to keep a cool head and not to allow the Turkish president to put them under pressure.

"Hundreds of thousands" of refugees have crossed into Europe since Turkey opened the border, Erdogan said on Monday, adding: "Soon we will reach millions." His estimates, however, do not correlate to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Many children are among those currently stuck on Turkey's border with Greece
Many children are among those currently stuck on Turkey's border with GreeceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Deeb

"We must not allow refugees to be turned into pawns for geopolitical interests," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. "No matter who tries, they must reckon with our resistance."

Maas said that the EU is still prepared to make contributions to improve the living conditions of refugees in Syria and Turkey among other places.

Read more: Migrants clash with Greek police at Turkey, Europe border

'We can't take you in'

Turkey, in particular, is carrying a heavy burden and is currently hosting nearly 4 million refugees.

Omid Nouripour, the Green Party's foreign policy spokesman, acknowledged the difficult situation, telling DW that Germany must "figure out a way to help Turkey."

That help, however, should only come "on the condition that Erdogan stops using refugees as blackmail. Because in that case we won't be able to come to an agreement with one another," Nouripour told DW.

Many refugees are also attempting the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of reaching Greece
Many refugees are also attempting the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of reaching GreeceImage: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

While some are considering a return to the status quo, other German politicians are taking a significant step in another direction.

Friedrich Merz, who is gunning to lead Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), spoke out against accepting more refugees from Turkey.

He said Berlin needs to send a clear signal: "There is no point in coming to Germany. We cannot take you in."

Merkel under pressure

Merz described the current situation at the Greek-Turkish border as a "great humanitarian catastrophe" and that Germany must help — but that it must do so at the scene. "Also in Turkey so that people there have a decent standard of living."

The "loss of control" in 2015 must not be repeated and Germany must maintain control over its borders, Merz said.

Christian Lindner, the leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), said that Merkel's ruling coalition will be judged on whether they can keep the situation under control.

Migrants stand behind a fence near the Kastanies border gate at the Greek-Turkish border
Greece has closed down its land border with TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Papanikos

"In order to reduce the migration flows, it would be helpful if Ms. Merkel clearly and publically stated that uncontrolled entry into Germany no longer exists," Lindner said.

"We've been saying for years that in the event of a crisis, it must also be possible to deny entry at the German border which is something our European partners already do," he added.

Far-right calls for closing borders

The AfD took Lindner's suggestion a step further — calling for the immediate closure of Germany's borders.

"Greece and Bulgaria must receive our full financial and logistical support for the necessary strengthened external border protections," AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen wrote on Facebook. At the same time further "protective measrures" should go into place on Germany's border and serve as a "second locking bolt."

Meuthen accused the chancellor of watching from the sidelines while the situation escalates. He called on Merkel's conservatives in parliament to "grab the steering wheel" and pull the "emergency brake" in order to close Germany's borders.

Migrants trapped at Turkey-Greece border

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