A fresh start for Germany’s refugee policy

20.11.2015 - Interview

A joint article by Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published on www.spiegel.de on 20 November 2015.

A joint article by Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published on www.spiegel.de on 20 November 2015.


Each day, around 10,000 people reach the Greek coast via Turkey and battle their way through the Western Balkans to reach the European Union, often under inhumane conditions. Each day, thousands of people are also coming to Germany. These people are fleeing war, terror and hunger. Our sympathy goes out to them. At the same time, we face a historic test. Tensions are rising in the Western Balkans once again while solidarity within the European Union risks being torn apart. Volunteers in Germany and elsewhere are reaching their limits. It is not necessarily the absolute numbers of refugees, but the momentum and the speed with which refugee numbers have grown within the space of just a few months that is taking us to our limit. A nation with more than 80 million inhabitants such as Germany is able to cope with one million refugees. Taking in and accommodating such a great number is difficult to manage in only one year, and virtually impossible to deal with year after year.

Reducing the speed of immigration

We must therefore reduce the speed and momentum of immigration and bring down the number of refugees coming to us each year. Many cities and municipalities have simply exhausted their reception capacities. What is more, successful integration requires moderation, careful preparation and, above all, time. We are facing the challenge of the decade – a comprehensive social policy that allows people who have already found protection and a new home in Germany to become integrated. Not only Sweden and Austria, our two most important partners at present, need a reduction in the speed of the influx of refugees, but Germany as well. If we want to be able to offer our help for not just one year, but for the longer term, we must establish greater order and control. In order to do this, we need a fresh start for Germany’s refugee policy.

Germany must use all of the political tools at its disposal to create the international conditions for keeping refugee flows better under control and channelling them more effectively. An agreement with Turkey is an essential element of this alongside an urgently needed European system for registering and distributing refugees. We want to establish effective controls of the EU’s maritime borders and create the conditions for ensuring that Syrians living in safety in Turkey do not choose to set out on the dangerous and illegal route to the EU.

Securing the EU’s external borders – helping Turkey – taking in quotas of refugees via safe routes

If Turkey is prepared to play a major role in securing its common border with the EU and at the same time agrees to continue to host refugees who try to cross this border, then the European Union must offer Turkey its wholehearted support based on the principle of solidarity. This also includes appropriate financial assistance for Syrian refugees. At the end of the day, this also includes making concessions – step by step – to Turkey for progress made in the refugee issue in areas that are greatly important to the Turkish people. This applies to classifying Turkey as a safe state of origin. However, it must be ensured also in the future that those fleeing political persecution are able to claim asylum in Germany. We must make much faster progress in the area of visa liberalisation. And, last but not least, we must inject fresh momentum into the accession negotiations that have stagnated for years.

If this cooperation with Turkey is successful, then Germany should – in return – take in quotas of Syrian refugees as part of a European effort as was the case in other civil war conflicts in the past. The people covered by these quotas should be taken to Europe and German via a safe route. This would be an orderly and safe way to take in refugees of civil war instead of today’s chaotic and uncontrolled migration on dangerous routes. Women and children first must be our watchword. Families must be given priority. These procedures will increase our ability to be in control of who comes to us as the application, identity verification and registration process is completed prior to entry. At the same time, it stops people seeking refuge from embarking on a life-threatening route across the Mediterranean and the refugee routes. No one should have to risk their lives trying to get to Europe. While this is a high aim, we must not set the bar any lower.

For us, it is clear that the fundamental right to asylum is sacrosanct. Every person who is pursued and comes to us must and will continue to have a right to an asylum procedure and a right to stay in Germany if they are entitled to asylum. However, only a relatively small fraction of the people fleeing to us are granted asylum owing to individual persecution. The overwhelming majority of the people coming to us flee from war and civil war and are granted protection in Germany as refugees of civil war. While hosting relevant quotas of refugees of civil war cannot therefore replace asylum procedures, it can certainly ease the burden. In all of this, we cannot define fixed upper limits as it would only be possible to do this by abolishing the individual right to asylum in the German constitution.

Combating the causes of flight

It is therefore also clear that greater order and control in refugee policy also requires international efforts to combat the causes of flight. This also includes investments to improve living conditions in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. We need to set up safe and humane accommodation for refugees under the responsibility of the United Nations. Furthermore, we must defuse the conflict in Syria and fight the terrorist organisation that is the so-called Islamic State on a united front. With the Vienna negotiations on Syria, there is now a first, tentative glimmer of hope. All important Syrian neighbours, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are at the table.

Turkey is the key country on the Western Balkans route. An indispensable and above all rapidly implementable part of the fresh start to the refugee policy must therefore be a tangible agreement between the European Union and Turkey. While paternalism and currying favour will not help us here, it was wrong to fob Ankara off for years with the vague promise of a “privileged partnership”. Although relations with Turkey were and remain far from easy, it is an indispensable partner for Germans and Europeans alike. It is good that others are now also espousing this assessment that we have shared in the SPD since day one.

A fair distribution of the burden in Europe

Last but not least, we must be more creative in our efforts at the European level to bring about a fresh start. Progress on implementing the decisions that have already been made – from setting up reception and distribution centres to providing funds and personnel – is far too slow. We will not cease to call for common protection of the EU’s external borders, a genuine European asylum system and, above all, a fair distribution of the burden in Europe. We must also consider whether member states that host refugees can receive financial support from a Community-funded European fund.

As social democrats, our actions are guided by a clear compass. We want a humane refugee policy that does not overstretch Germany in the long term while at the same time safeguarding the great achievement of open borders in Europe. We therefore want a refugee policy based on the principle of solidarity that distributes the burden more fairly along the Western Balkans route.

We want a European refugee policy. Germany cannot close its borders without consulting its neighbours and revoke the principle of European solidarity. Those who make such demands have – seventy years after the end of the Second World War – not realised the existential interest that we Germans have in Europe.

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