Refugee Chancellor: Misguided Applause For Merkel

I am surprised, even puzzled, by how the European and international media and political elites are celebrating German chancellor Angela Merkel for her ‘humanitarian turn’ in the refugee crisis. The change in migration and asylum policy in Germany isn’t half as progressive or humanitarian as commentators and enthusiasts are painting it. In fact, it is a selective opening driven not least by economic considerations and a demographic pressure for immigration. It is driven by economic necessity at least as much as it is motivated by the deteriorating situation in the periphery of the fortress Europe in Greece, Italy and Hungary that until a few weeks ago didn’t really interest anyone in Berlin’s government circles too much, because legally (according to the Dublin accords) the mounting refugee crisis was ‘their problem’. The German agency actually sent back a large portion of the refugees seeking asylum in Germany to those states in the European periphery, in full knowledge that those countries were surcharged and thus largely unable to provide adequate housing or due and timely process of their asylum applications.

According to ProAsyl, an independent human rights group promoting the rights of refugees in Germany, about 20% of the asylum applications in Germany in 2014 were found to have other European countries responsible according to the Dublin accord. This is still standard practice for most asylum seekers, with the exception of Syrians, which for the last two weeks were guaranteed the right to file their asylum application in Germany no matter where they entered the European soil. The news today from Interior Minister Thomas de Mazierè that Germany has ‘temporarily’ resurrected the borders and suspended itself from the Schengen zone only served to reiterate the point that Merkel’s ‘humanitarian turn’ is nothing of the sort.

With the arrival of thousands of refugees from war torn Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya Eritrea and other crisis-hit areas across the globe (this list is by no means exhaustive) this summer at European borders amounted to sufficient public pressure to soften the iron fist approach to what is perversely called ‘illegal migration’. At least for the few thousands stranded at the fences and across the European periphery, this means the de facto opening of boarders within the fortress Europe. However, this is far from an adequate response to the worldwide refugee crisis.

A short disclaimer might be necessary here: I am by no means attempting to elaborate on the question of who caused and is perpetrating the wars and violence that motivate people to enter the life-or-death lottery of crossing the Mediterranean on a vessel that might sink half way with their entire family or fork out their savings for such a ride through hell with an uncertain outcome, while regular ferries and luxury cruise ships cross the Mediterranean daily.

However, I would like to point to the fact that the ‘refugee crisis’ is not solved simply through opening the borders within the Europe or the Schengen area for refugees that were ‘fortunate’ enough to find themselves stranded at our borders. It is also not solved by fastening the legal processing of asylum applications. Neither it is going to be solved simply by the overwhelming and encouraging citizen and civil society support in Germany and other central European states that actually carry out many tasks that by right should be taken care of by the state. The state institutions, surprised by the growing numbers of people literally knocking at their doors, seem unable to deal with the influx of people seeking refuge from wars that have been raging in spitting distance from Europe’s borders for more than four years now (Syria, Iraq, Libya and recently Yemen and even Turkey). However, state administrations are understaffed and have insufficient resources to deal with the most basic tasks as providing the people in need with a roof over their head, much needed health care and something to eat, as we have seen today with news that the borders are back up.

The current European refugee crisis aside, we should take a step back in order to gain some perspective. The European refugee crisis is really just a drop in the ocean. Around 97% of Syrian refugees are displaced in the neighboring states Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt – and that is just the Syrian refugees. In total, we are witnessing the highest number of forcibly displaced people ever recorded: currently nearly 60,000,000 according to the UNHCR. Only a tiny fraction of these refugees actually make it to Europe. Also, not all of them want to come to Europe. Most hope to safely return to their homes (if they still exist) and wait out under oftentimes-inhumane conditions in neighboring countries. Still, terms like "refugee flood" are constantly used in reference to the influx Europe is experiencing. These words stir xenophobia and even racist and fascist sentiments and propaganda in Europe. The sad truth is that such bold headlines produce inhumane responses to those most in need as the daily assaults on refugees, refugee accommodation and volunteers’ in Germany and other European countries prove.

Despite the fact that an overwhelming number of refugees have taken refuge in neighboring states, European governments have left those neighboring countries mostly alone, facing the biggest portion of refugees while reinforcing the criminalization of immigration into ‘fortress Europe’, hence forcing refugees into risking their lives on the illegal and dangerous journey in hope of finding safety from war and persecution. In the same vein, the prosperous Gulf States have stepped up their border security and have not taken in any refugees from their neighbors in turmoil.

Letting refugees cross inner European borders and effectively undermining the Dublin accords is a start but is inadequate as a solution to the systemic injustice of criminalizing ongoing migration and even reinforced by new fences and military and police presence among Europe's borders as in Hungary.

Just this week, Germany determined some states in the former Yugoslavia to be ‘safe origin states’, which means that asylum seekers from these countries have nearly no chance of winning refugee status in Germany. This aggravation of the German asylum policy has gone by nearly unnoticed by the domestic and international debate hailing the ‘refugee chancellor’ Merkel (Flüchtlingskanzlerin) for taking a progressive stance in the refugee crisis.

The pervasive core of the European asylum and refugee system is that it appears humanitarian – and in line with the Geneva Convention on refugees – while at the same time visa and migration policies and border practices actually undermine the possibility for legal entry into Europe for the large majority of refugees. This drives people that are in need of a safe place, people that have lost everything or are endangered by war and violence, into an illegal and life threatening endeavor to make it to European soil in order to be able to file their right for refuge as is legally anchored by the Geneva conventions. Truth be told, the European asylum system that has created Fortress Europe in fear of a hypothetical invasion is fundamentally undermining the principles embodied in the Geneva conventions. Even if we dispose of international conventions for the sake of argument, the reality is that people seeking refuge are forced out of their homes by war and violence.

Commentators and enthusiasts across Europe should remember that Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble, among others, were the creators of the systematic criminalization of migration over the past two decades that made it nearly impossible for refugees to legally file their request for refuge or asylum.
A comprehensive refugee policy has to include legal ways of allowing refugees overseas in the crisis areas and the ones stranded in the surrounding countries to pursue their right to refuge and file their asylum application. A sustainable refugee policy in times of unprecedented numbers has to involve a distributive system to establish a burden sharing system across countries within Europe but also beyond. The Gulf States as well as the US, Canada, Australia and Asian countries have to be reminded that the refugee crisis is not simply ‘a European problem’ but a common struggle. Or as Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the British Labor party, phrased it in his speech yesterday: “We are one World”. If you say refugees are welcome here that not only means dealing with those people in need standing at your doorstep but also those stuck in war torn places and regions cramped in refugee camps that outnumbers big cities of the countries that now host them in terms of inhabitants.

Open the gates.

By Ilyas Saliba
Ilyas Saliba is a PhD researcher in Berlin, an analyst, journalist and photographer with experience at respected think tanks and universities across Europe. He focuses on democratization and autocratic regimes, security studies and political violence. He is also a committed foodie with a deep love of Syrian food. 

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