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A turning point in the refugee crisis

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
September 14, 2015

The decision to reintroduce border controls on the Austrian border represents a change of course for Germany in its handling of the refugee crisis. The move raises some painful questions, writes Kersten Knipp.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Grenzkontrollen Thomas de Maiziere
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

The decision came suddenly. Germany is introducing "temporary" border controls with Austria. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced the measures at a surprising press conference on Sunday afternoon. He said Germany will help, but that the nation's support must not be abused.

This can be understood to mean: The previous weeks' practice of granting Syrian refugees asylum and allowing them unrestricted passage into Germany has failed. Over 60,000 people have arrived in Munich since the end of August alone - too many for the city - and too many for the country, which has lost control of the situation. Last night in Munich, refugees had to sleep in the train station for the first time.

The "temporary" reintroduction of border controls is a de facto admission that while in theory the fundamental right to asylum knows no upper limit, in practice this limit is reached in a matter of days.

Dramatic consequences

The short-term consequences of this admission are dramatic. Train traffic between Germany and Austria was temporarily suspended, twenty-one squadrons of police headed to the German-Austrian border. According to reports, random police checks will be implemented near the borders of the Czech Republic and Poland. In other words, refugees supposedly will not be able to take a detour to reach Germany.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App
DW's Kersten Knipp

Twenty-one squadrons: A huge commitment of police that will now be used against the very people who had come to believe in the idea that asylum is a fundamental right - without limits. They will feel cheated, and this broken promise will cause more than a few to take matters into their own hands. Since legal passage is prohibited, many will try to cross the border illegally. The squadrons will supposedly prevent this.

Arab World Reacts

Images of these actions will soon replace those of Germany's largely warm welcome of refugees. They will also be seen in the Arab world. One can only hope those in the Arab world see the proof that Germany has reached its limit. If not, Germany could go very quickly from praised to maligned in the eyes of countless Arabs.

That would not be astonishing, since only few in the Arab world may be familiar with the German domestic debate on the issue. The right of unlimited asylum has been fiercely debated in Germany in the past several days - less in the mainstream media but decisively so in the online debate forums. Many have expressed great concern: How can we manage so many? Is it within the capacity of the welfare state to care for the asylum seekers? How will the refugees be integrated into society? Many readers complained they were being left out of the decision-making.

Neighbor states unnerved

Germany's decision to allow the unrestricted travel of Syrians into Germany has been a source of great irritation for the countries neighboring Germany, especially those in Eastern Europe. These countries say Germany's promise is a huge magnet for refugees. As long as Europe's outer borders remain unsecured they say, citing the Schengen Agreement, Germany should not allow unrestricted entry into the country.

The decision to reintroduce border controls will undermine the incentive to come to Germany for now. This will create space for the urgently-needed harmonization of EU asylum policies. Quotas for the distribution of refugees can now again be discussed now that migration routes have been cut off.

Painful decisions

In effect, the decision has reversed the asylum policy the government and states have been following until now. It sets limits. The question of what these limits are - how many lucky migrants will get in and how many unlucky ones will be kept out - this question will now be fiercely debated. It is one of the most painful and ethically complicated questions by far. But it is now clear, the country must pose the question.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East