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Syrian refugees find a safe haven in Germany

March 15, 2021

No other Europan country has taken in as many Syrian refugees as Germany. But the issue continues to divide society.

Refugee at Munich train station holding a photo of Angela Merkel
In 2015 Syrian regugees started coming to Germany in large numbersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

It was one of the most important decisions Chancellor Angela Merkel had to make in her long tenure as German leader: In the summer of 2015, she decided to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country. They had fled the horror of the civil war that began on 15 March 2011.

Only a few refugees made their way to Germany during the first years, but during the course of 2015, their number began to grow — many of them heading north via what became known as the Balkan route. And when it came to the moment of truth: the German border remained open in what was widely viewed as a remarkable gesture of solidarity. It was a decision that Angela Merkel had in very large measure made on her own. There was no consultation with Germany's European partners. No debate in the German parliament. No wonder, perhaps, that it has proved so controversial.

There was warm and welcoming applause from some when large numbers of refugees began arriving at Munich's Central Station. Some others, however, responded in a different way: by attacking asylum hostels. Time Magazine named Angela Merkel its Person of the Year 2015. For his part, Donald Trump called the open-door policy a "catastrophic mistake."

In the end, nearly a million people were to apply for asylum in Germany in 2015 alone. The interior minister at the time was Thomas de Maizière: He later admitted that there had been "moments when things got of control." His successor, Horst Seehofer, went even further. For him, there had been a breakdown of law and order that he described as "the rule of injustice." There were several occasions when differences over refuge policy threatened to break apart Merkel's coalition government of her own CDU/CSU conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Chart showing the support in Germany for Angela Merkel's refugee policy

Recognition and reservations

Looking back, the spectrum of political responses to the events of 2015 is and was very wide. In August last year, on the fifth anniversary of Angela Merkel's famous appeal — "We can do this!" — politicians reflected on the significance of those historic words.

Irene Mihalic of the Green Party said: "At the time, the chancellor was right not to close the border. The alternative would have been the prospect of chaos in the heart of Europe, with an incalculable potential for conflict." Lars Castellucci of the social democrats was more cautious. He backed the dramatic course adopted by the chancellor. But he believed that it had been, "a mistake not to bring our European partners sufficiently on board. A decision that," he added, "created enormous difficulties that still resonate today."

Syria torture trial in Germany

Gottfried Curio, from the populist anti-asylum Alternative for Germany (AfD) was more critical: "It would have been both realistic and relevant to have stuck to the letter of the law. (...) If people had been turned away from the very start, fewer would have followed and fewer would have drowned in the Mediterranean."

Angela Merkel's "welcome culture" suffered a huge reversal on New Year's Eve 2015 when hundreds of women were reportedly sexually abused and assaulted in and near the Central Station in the western city of Cologne. The far-right AfD got a massive boost from the shocking scenes and in the 2017 parliamentary election, the populists would emerge as Germany's largest opposition party.

Merkel has always stood by the lonely decision she made in 2015. But, at a conservative party conference in December 2016, she did backpedal by saying that the situation that evolved in the late summer of 2015, "cannot, should not, and must never be repeated."

As a result, Germany's policies on refugees and asylum were tightened. Meanwhile, the number of people applying for asylum fell dramatically as the countries along the Balkan route made it increasingly difficult for anybody to make their way to northern and western Europe.

Chart showing how many asylum applications were successful in the years 2010-2019

Refuge only temporary

The German authorities, charities, and other private initiatives have worked hard for many years now to try and ensure that refugees are integrated into German society. The focus has been on language skills and access to the labor market. Nevertheless, employment rates are still well below the national average. Which can, at least in part, be put down to the fact that many refugees have uncertain residency status. The Covid pandemic has also led to setbacks because refugees and asylum seekers tend to be among the first to be laid off by employers.

The chancellor has always firmly maintained that migration means opportunities. However, in early 2016, she told a regional CDU gathering that the intention was only for the refugees to remain in Germany temporarily: "We expect that when peace has returned to Syria, when ISIS has been defeated in Iraq, they will take the knowledge that they have acquired here and return to your homeland."

Deportation of "potentially-dangerous people"

But the reality is that the security situation on the ground in Syria is catastrophic. As is the supply situation. Still, a moratorium on deportations to Syria that had been in place since 2012 was lifted at the end of last year following pressure from conservative ranks. In principle, that means that people categorized as "potentially-dangerous" can since the beginning of the current year be deported. The Interior Ministry says 89 "potentially-dangerous" Islamists from Syria are believed to be living in Germany. People, that is, who the authorities suspect could carry out serious politically-motivated offenses. It goes without saying, however, that each case must be individually and carefully investigated.

Meanwhile, the human rights organization Pro Asyl explains on its website why the vast majority of Syrians currently resident in Germany have little to fear: "For the time being, deportations to Syria are practically impossible." First of all, the German government would have to reopen diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. "The Syrian authorities would have to make commitments to their German counterparts that people deported there would not become victims of human rights violations. Given the stranglehold that Assad and his henchmen once again have on power, that would seem to be completely unrealistic."

Syrian refugee to become MP?

Election year

It is "super election year" here in Germany. People will be going to the polls locally, regionally, nationally. And they are set to decide who will replace Angela Merkel as Germany's next chancellor. Of course, containing the Covid pandemic remains the top priority. But refugee and asylum issues could still play a central role. And indeed, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has already warned the political parties not to lose sight of their obligation to defend the vulnerable.

The UNHCR has in fact praised Germany for being a "trailblazer in global efforts to protect refugees. At the same time, however, the organization has warned that refugee policies and interests often only tend to be "prioritized when it comes to combatting abuse of the asylum system and tackling threats to domestic security." It would, says the UNHCR, be equally important to highlight the successes there have been in Germany in terms of protecting and integrating refugees. The message is: "During their election campaigns, the political parties have a special responsibility."

The story of Tareq Alaows might help to underscore just how successful integration measures can be. The 31-year-old former refugee will be a Green Party candidate for a seat in parliament when he stands in September's Bundestag election.

This text was translated from German.