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The EU's refugee policy: Doomed to division?

As the European Union mulls camps and on-site processing on the Greek islands, Germany pledges to take in more migrants. A pan-European solution remains elusive.

Once again, Germany is taking the lead and giving shelter to refugees and migrants from the Greek islands. Germany’s political leaders are now outdoing each other with calls to take in more people than the 1,553 agreed to this week.

The co-leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), Saskia Esken, demanded that a "high four-figure sum" be taken in, while the Greens' parliamentary party leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt specified 5,000.

Many church representatives, aid organizations, and local and state authorities have joined a chorus of people insisting that Germany should offer shelter to more people left stranded by the burnt refugee camp at Moria, on the island of Lesbos.

But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU) is digging in his heels, for two reasons: He does not want migrants to think that they can get around established procedures for the granting of asylum — and he also wants to push for a European Union-wide policy to deal with migration. Seehofer wants the German government, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, to come up with a solution.

German attempts to go it alone, from Seehofer's perspective, merely get in the way of attempts to formulate a European answer. Mathias Middelberg, the conservative parliamentary party spokesman on interior affairs told DW: "We cannot give the impression that Germany is willing to solve the migration issue on its own."

Watch video 00:46

Horst Seehofer on common European asylum policy

Germany: Lone voice in the European wilderness

Reactions from other EU member states confirm this view. States such as Hungary or Poland, who have traditionally refused to go along with efforts to form a common policy, continue to sit on their hands. But they are not the only source of indifference or even open resistance.

The Netherlands, for example, says it is willing to take in just 100 people. But it intends to trade this figure off against a UNHCR contingent, with the ultimate upshot that the country would not admit a single additional refugee. Austria has signaled even stiffer resistance, despite the Greens, who are fundamentally in favor of accepting refugees, being part of the coalition.

The conservative Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has expressly pledged "not to follow the German path." Instead, Austria says it will offer on-site aid in Lesbos. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg expressed concern that if Moria were to be evacuated by relocating migrants throughout the EU, the camp would soon fill up again with new arrivals. 

Conservative German politician Middelberg agrees: "We cannot give the impression that if you make it to the Greek islands, you practically have a choice of where to go in Europe."

The issue of migration remains one of the biggest hot-button issues in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly assured voters that a situation like before in 2015 — when Germany allowed hundreds of thousands of people to enter the country largely unchecked — "may not and will not be allowed to happen again."

Migrants arrive in Greece in March 2020 (Reuters/A. Konstantinidis)

Many migrants and refugees see the Greek islands as a gateway to Europe

The CDU’s pilot project

The row ignited by the destroyed camp at Moria may yet have a lasting impact on the broader debate about reforming European asylum policy. Until now, calls for member states to take in refugees have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Both Chancellor Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are now thinking out loud about setting up new camps on the Greek islands, to be jointly run by the EU and Greece. The EU would ensure that European standards are maintained and that asylum applications would be processed on-site. Only those whose applications are successful would be allowed to travel on to mainland Europe. Those whose applications are rejected would be sent back. The plan is basically a copy of the agreement hammered out between the EU and Turkey in 2016.

Read moreMoria refugee camp tragedy rekindles political controversy in Germany

"The new reception center on Lesbos can serve as a pilot project for European refugee policies. Fast-track procedures at the EU’s external borders will be aimed at facilitating a rapid decision on whether a person should be let in or sent back,” says Middelberg.

The plan will also be part of the blueprint on asylum policy reform to be presented by von der Leyen next week.

Angela Merkel Selfie with Anas Modamani (Getty Images/S. Gallup)

Chancellor Merkel has stressed that the situation in 2015 must not be repeated

High rejection rate

But these ideas are a long way off from what migrants and refugees on the Greek islands want to hear. After the fire destroyed Moria camp, they are hoping to be allowed off the island regardless of the verdict in their asylum processes.

Greek authorities say they suspect that migrants started the blaze in a bid to force Athens to allow them to move to the mainland. The government has described it as "Moria tactics." Several Afghan nationals have been arrested on charges of arson, including two minors who were brought to the mainland for protection after the fire.

Moria camp fire on Lesbos (AFP)

Moria camp fire: Greek authorities have arrested several migrants for suspected arson

The alternate minister for migration, Giorgios Koumoutsakos, said after the fire: "Anyone who thinks he can just go to the mainland and then travel on to Germany can forget it.” 

The EU’s role on the islands is well-established, with the European Asylum Support Office represented at the camps. But the scale of the task it faces is huge. According to the European Commission, 11,000 people on the island of Lesbos alone are waiting for the results of their applications.

Some 1,400 people have been granted asylum, while 900 rejections were confirmed on appeal. Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament, has spoken of a rejection rate of 60% at the EU's external borders. 

According to the UNHCR, some 10,000 people have crossed illegally from Turkey to the Greek islands this year. That’s considerably fewer than last year. But Turkey is currently engaged in a dispute with Greece over natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Ankara could use refugees as a political pawn once again to gain an upper hand — andallow many more people to attempt the illegal crossing towards Europe. 


 

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