Germany's Merkel Remains Firm on Migrant Policy as Elections Draw Near

James Carstensen | August 28, 2017 | 5:23pm EDT
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A U.N. staffer helps refugees and migrants to register at a police station on the Greek island of Kos. Germany admitted nearly 890,000 migrants in 2015. (Photo: UNHCR/S.Baltagiannis)

Berlin ( – A month ahead of Germany’s national election, Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing by her decision two years ago to open the country’s borders to refugees, but is seeking ways to curb new migration flows in collaboration with governments in North Africa.

“I would make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again,” Merkel told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, saying they had been necessary to “avert a humanitarian catastrophe.” Germany admitted nearly 890,000 migrants that year.

Merkel conceded, however, that E.U. law may not have been sufficient to deal with the massive refugee influx, and that issues such as distributing refugees more evenly across the E.U. must be addressed.

She has been particularly critical of the E.U.’s so-called “Dublin Regulation,” requiring asylum seekers to register in the first E.U. state they enter. Merkel argued this places uneven burdens on the Mediterranean countries, mainly Italy and Greece.

“It is unacceptable that Greece and Italy should have to carry the burden alone, only because they have the geographical location that they do and the refugees arrive there,” she told the paper.

As early as September 2015 the E.U.’s executive Commission called for migrants to be redistributed according to a quota scheme but the plan met with considerable resistance, particularly from eastern European countries such as Poland, which has still not accepted a single refugee, and Hungary.

Another issue that has made waves relates to people who have been granted asylum – but who then take holidays back in their countries of origin.

A newspaper report on the issue a year ago claimed that refugees were taking holidays in countries of origin including Syria, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The claims have been under investigation by the German migration agency, but the probe is complicated by data protection laws. There is no requirement for migrants to disclose travel destinations and no legal basis for authorities to demand this information from them.

Under the Geneva refugee convention, any refugee who has voluntarily “re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality” could lose refugee status.

“Taking holidays in the country in which you are being persecuted is not acceptable,” Merkel said in the interview, adding that such a case would lead to a re-examination of an asylum decision.

As the election looms, immigration remains the biggest concern for voters, with a study have found that 56 percent of Germans are concerned about migration and integration.

Still, that marks a sharp drop from 2016 when 83 percent expressed this concern.

Martin Schulz, Merkel’s main challenger for the chancellorship, labeled her “aloof” and “out of touch” on the issue.

An Emnid opinion poll on Sunday suggested Merkel’s refugee policy was not hurting her election prospects, putting her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) 15 points ahead of the Schulz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

North Africa cooperation

Meanwhile there is a new push by leading E.U. states to cooperate more closely with governments in North African countries that are either home to many migrants or used as transit routes.

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Germany, Italy and Spain as well as the leaders of Chad, Niger and Libya to talks in Paris to examine the situation.

A draft statement from the meeting signaled plans for increased cooperation with the three neighboring North African countries in a move to further curb illegal migration, with the E.U. offering financial support for the governments to reinforce their mutual borders.

“In partnership with the E.U., Germany, Spain, France and Italy will continue to improve economic cooperation with local communities along the migratory routes, particularly in the region of Agadez [Niger] and in Libya, in order to create alternative sources of income and make them independent of human trafficking,” the statement said.

One day earlier, Germany and Egypt reached a similar agreement during talks in Berlin between foreign ministers Sigmar Gabriel and Sameh Shoukry.

Germany plans to provide Egypt with resources to assist its people to find better jobs, such as through training programs. “The problem of illegal immigration is an international one, and we must deal with the socio-economic roots of the crisis,” Egypt’s foreign ministry quoted Shoukry as saying.

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