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The Staggering Scale of Germany’s Refugee Project


Imagine that civil wars in Central America doubled the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States. Now imagine all those migrants heading to California.

It’s early yet, but in the past few weeks, Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, have emerged as contenders for the fastest international image makeover in recent memory. Just six months ago, the German magazine Der Spiegel decided to depict the mood in Europe by photoshopping Merkel into a picture of Nazi commanders on the Acropolis. The euro zone’s debt crisis had set Germans up, the cover story argued, as the European Union’s unpopular economic dictator.

But Germany’s recent policy shifts on the European migrant crisis—vast numbers of asylum-seekers, escaping war and persecution in countries such as Syria and Iraq, flooding into southern Europe—have shoved headlines in entirely the opposite direction. “Germany’s open-door policy in migrant crisis casts nation in a new light,” proclaims the Los Angeles Times. “Angela Merkel hailed as an angel of mercy,” reads The Sydney Morning Herald.

It’s hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the project Merkel and Germany have undertaken.

In the first seven months of 2015, Germany reportedly received well over 200,000 applications for asylum, leading Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to predict in August that 800,000 people would arrive in the country as refugees or to pursue asylum by the end of the year, up from an estimate of 300,000 in January. It took some time for Merkel to adopt her current bold posture; when a far-right and neo-Nazi demonstration against a refugee center grew violent on August 21, the chancellor was sharply criticized in German papers for her late and tepid response. She and French President Francois Hollande called for greater European coordination in addressing the migrant crisis—a plea that looked rather weak and futile given the European rejection in June of a quota system for distributing asylum-seekers.

Scarcely two weeks later, however, Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann granted passage to 10,000 refugees stranded in Hungary, after the Hungarian government suggestively placed them on the Austrian border. Two days after that, Merkel earmarked €6 billion to deal with the rush of asylum-seekers, as other countries followed Berlin’s cue. (The United Kingdom has committed to accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years—or roughly the number of people estimated to have arrived in Germany in one weekend following the Hungary decision; the United States has since promised to admit 10,000 over the next 12 months.) The next day, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel announced that Germany could handle a staggering half a million asylum-seekers per year for the next several years. In contrast to the far-right demonstrations of prior months, the crowds now making headlines are those like the one that gathered to welcome refugees arriving from Hungary at Munich’s Hauptbahnhof.

“When Germany says, ‘We’ll get 800,000 people this year,’ these are not people Germany has selected or invited in. These people are just turning up.”

There’s no clear parallel for this sort of influx in the United States. On paper, the U.S. is a giant in the refugee-acceptance business, taking in more refugees than every other country in the world combined, according to Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow and co-founder of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. But there’s a difference, she pointed out, between the refugees the United States resettles and the asylum-seekers arriving in Germany. In the former case, individuals are carefully vetted outside the destination country and only then resettled in that country. In the latter, people are flowing over the border—effectively presenting themselves on the ground—and then asking for state protection.


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