Germany: Epicentre of the EU Migration Crisis

By Asli Ilgit and Audie Klotz

The Syrian refugee crisis has highlighted serious on-going tensions over migration between EU members and neighbouring states, as well as among EU members. Germany has been at the forefront in developing responses to recent arrivals, in part because it has been the most influential member in European immigration debates since the Schengen agreement negotiations. We offer an analysis of Germany’s policies and their likely impact, as the migration crisis continues to unfold. Trends point to a lasting German commitment to a rights-based response to refugees and therefore only modest reforms to current EU policies.


Germany expects between 800,000 and 1.5 million refugees by the end of 2015. Sweden and Germany together have received close to fifty percent of the Syrian asylum applications in the European Union between 2011 and 2015.1 Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to be the most public face of the escalating refugee crisis in Europe. In stark contrast to her harsher image as an advocate for austerity in Greece, and before that, critic of multiculturalism, Merkel projects a humanising message that refugees deserve shelter. So far, Germany has delivered on that commitment, despite pockets of domestic discontent.

But even Merkel stresses that Germany cannot indefinitely carry the brunt of European responsibilities. Germany has repeatedly called for greater burden sharing among its EU partners, but their responses cover the gamut. For example, Italy has been at the forefront of efforts to rescue people attempting to cross the Mediterranean, whereas Hungary has bolstered barriers to entry by land. And Britain has only begrudgingly declared it would accept more refugees, albeit none who have already made the journey to Europe.

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The unresolved Syrian crisis is prompting major changes to the EU’s approach to asylum. In October 2015, its members responded to German complaints with a quota system for resettling refugees. Again led by Germany, the EU has recently reopened discussion about accelerating Turkey’s accession, in exchange for bolstering border controls.

Do these trends foreshadow a deeper regional restructuring? Germany’s policy will be the key. Merkel personally has played a crucial role in the past decade, but signs point to a lasting commitment to a rights-based response, regardless of how much longer she remains at the helm.


Long-term Effects of the Balkans Crisis

Germany has been at the forefront in developing responses to the most recent Syrian refugee crisis. For example, it was the first country in Europe to implement a humanitarian admissions program for Syrian refugees with special needs, starting in March 2013. That response was consistent with long-standing acceptance of refugees, building on its 1949 constitution, which has made Germany the largest destination for asylum seekers among EU members. Consequently, Germany has always been influential in European immigration debates.

Much of Germany’s current approach is rooted in the early 1990s, a period of unprecedented migration flows that resulted from German unification, the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and rising numbers of asylum seekers escaping the war in the Balkans. The number of asylum seekers increased from around 60,000 applications in 1987 to 440,000 in 1992.2 Ad hoc ways of addressing problems, such as obligatory entry visas for certain groups of asylum seekers or work bans for asylum applicants, proved inadequate to deal with this challenge.3

Germany was the first country in Europe to implement a humanitarian admissions program for Syrian refugees with special needs, starting in March 2013.

These impromptu measures were soon replaced by a legal amendment that kept the right to asylum and provided temporary protection status for the Bosnian refugees but also introduced the ‘safe third country rule’. First used in 1993, this rule gave Germany authority to reject an asylum application from a person who enters the country from a member state of the EU or any other state that is deemed a safe place of refuge. Germany even changed its own constitution to allow this reform. With the goal of redistributing asylum seekers and sharing the refugee burden, Germany also exported this safe third country rule into EU negotiations, then implemented in common asylum procedures and harmonisation of standards after the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997.

In the aftermath of the Balkans crisis, Germany overhauled its policies, largely in response to domestic political pressures. Actors such as religious and business groups are highly institutionalised via federations and associations in a corporatist system that enables them to raise their voices effectively. For example, the Confederation of German Industries (Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie), the German Trade Union Federation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) and the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (Bundesvereinigung der deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände) helped tackle right-wing extremism at workplaces. And strong ties between societal groups and political parties — on the left with labour and rights advocates, on the right with business — generated pressures for policy changes.

By the late 1990s, attention had shifted from the number of foreigners to their ‘quality,’ leading to major reforms, including the 1999 citisenship law, a new green card for high-skilled workers, and Germany’s first-ever immigration law in 2005. As a result, the main focus of German immigration policy shifted from “prevention” to “integration”.4 Elected in 2005, Merkel’s CDU-SPD coalition government declared immigrant integration to be a national priority. Re-elected in 2009 and 2013, Merkel has dominated the debate over migration policies, nationally and regionally.


Renegotiating EU Commitments

The cornerstone of German and EU refugee policies continues to be the safe third country rule. Efforts to create a common European asylum regime throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including non-binding initiatives (London Resolutions of 1992), treaties (such as Schengen Agreement and Treaty of Amsterdam), conventions and regulations (the Dublin System) remained part of Germany’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers. In the meantime, through bilateral agreements with its bordering neighbours, Germany aimed to expand the boundaries of security and to spread the burden of dealing with imminent threat from asylum seekers and refugees.

Germany continues to rely on the safe third country rule for its recent policy reforms. In October 2014, Merkel’s broad-based coalition government expanded the list of safe countries to encompass the western Balkans. It also committed to shortening the processing time of asylum claims to three months, to lift residence restrictions on refugees, and to reduce restrictions on their employment. These reforms stressed Germany’s need for immigrants and refugees to boost its labour force in light of an aging population and insufficient skilled labourers. Political leaders have actively promoted the instrumental value of accepting Syrians refugees, many of whom have desirable qualifications.

While still calling for a common, coherent, integrated and better applied EU policy for asylum and refugees, Germany surprisingly suspended enforcement of the safe third country rule in August 2015, claiming that it lacked administrative capacity to block an uncontrollable flow of Syrian refugees entering the country through other European countries. Despite this temporary response to the current surge, German officials continue to blame other EU states for their relaxed application of the Dublin regulations, which allowed asylum seekers to travel to Germany without registering them upon their first entry point.

This response to the Syrian crisis has developed in the face of percolating xenophobic protests, located especially in areas of the former East Germany with little experience with immigrants. A loose coalition of various far-right movements – PEGIDA (‘Ultras’), HoGeSa (Hooligans against Salafists), Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) – fueled demonstrations against “Islamisation” and even violent attacks on refugee shelters across the country. Some politicians adopt a mild tone, claiming that protestors had legitimate concerns and rejected charges of racism. In contrast, Merkel has directly challenged right-wing extremism. In December 2014, for example, she firmly condemned violent attacks on refugee shelters, rejected PEGIDA as reprehensible, and promised to fight intolerance.

In addition, the European, federal and sub-national courts play a crucial role. For example, the German government respected a European Court of Human Rights decision in 2011 that Greece violated the human rights of an Iraqi refugee by detaining him under inhuman conditions and leaving him homeless. A coalition of rights groups subsequently campaigned for the German government to end deportations of asylum seekers to any EU countries where they were likely face detention or deprivation. In 2012, the Federal Court in an unprecedented ruling found the material benefits paid to refugees, based on the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act of 1993, to be insufficient and hence an unconstitutional violation of the fundamental right to a decent minimum standard of living.

These reforms stressed Germany’s need for immigrants and refugees to boost its labour force in light of an aging population and insufficient skilled labourers. Political leaders have actively promoted the instrumental value of accepting Syrians refugees, many of whom have desirable qualifications.

These legal proceedings were applauded by many human rights organisations, such as ProAsyl, which have long criticised the 1993 asylum law as a deterrence policy. More recently, in January 2015, the Berlin Administrative court stopped deportation from Germany of a Syrian refuge to Hungary, where the asylum seeker had first applied for refuge on the grounds that Hungary “almost invariably” put asylum seekers in detention for up to 6 months, shows “systemic deficiencies” in its asylum procedures, hence a breach of both the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European convention.

Despite recent legal reinforcements and policy reforms, Merkel once again found herself under the spotlight during her controversial visit to Turkey in October 2015. With the EU’s support, Merkel discussed Turkey’s cooperation in border control and improving conditions for refugees in return for promised financial aid, speed up visa free travel to Europe, and support for opening new chapters in Turkey’s accession bid. Yet her visit raised concerns and suspicions for its unintended consequences of boosting the current AKP government and President Erdogan right before Turkey’s controversial national elections on November 1 (in which the AKP subsequently won a majority).


Future Prognosis

Over the past decade, Angela Merkel has successfully implemented major reforms to immigration and refugees policies. These reforms have been institutionalised, both domestically and at the EU level, thereby limiting the likelihood that her electoral fate will alter Germany’s commitment to a rights-based response to refugees in the future. Instead, any significant legal or policy changes are more likely to emerge from tensions between the federal government and the Länder (sub-national states).

The safe third country rule will remain the centrepiece, but tensions that have emerged will not subside.

And the EU will clearly need to revisit its collective policies once the Syrian crisis ebbs. The safe third country rule will remain the centerpiece, but tensions that have emerged will not subside. In particular, attention has been drawn to Eastern European countries, including questions about their own arguably authoritarian leanings. Nor will problems with the inherently elusive goal of border control be resolved, regardless of Turkey’s status.

About the Author

Dr. Asli Ilgit is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Cukurova University, Turkey, with research interests in politics of identity, migration, and foreign and security policy. Her work has been published in Security Dialogue, Mediterranean Politics and MERIP. She can be reached at

Dr. Audie Klotz is a Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, USA. Her research interests include international relations and global migration. She can be reached at or via Twitter @AudieKlotz.

1. Available at: (Accessed 1 November 2015)

2. Migration and Integration: Residence law and policy on migration and integration in Germany, Federal Ministry of the Interior, 2014.
3. Martin, P. (1998) ‘Germany: Reluctant Land of Immigration’, German Issues 21, The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), Washington, D.C.
4. Green, S. (2013) ‘Germany: A Changing Country of Immigration,’ German Politics 22(3): 333-351.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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