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BERLIN — This year, the number of refugees arriving in Germany is almost as high as in 2015 and 2016 — when the government nearly collapsed.
When civil war broke out in Syria, refugees flooded into Europe. Between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, tens of thousands of people arrived in Germany. Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Wir schaffen das” – “We have this.” Merkel’s government allowed migrants to enter Germany even though, under the EU, other countries in the bloc would also have been responsible for them. The massive influx has led to friction both within Germany and between European capitals.
Germany registered nearly 1.2 million asylum applications in 2015 and 2016. At first, many Germans applauded Syrians arriving at train stations and offered their support – coining the term Willkommenskultur. But as towns and villages were overwhelmed, with gymnasiums and container villages set up to accommodate the influx of refugees, the political mood quickly soured.
Fast forward to 2022: the number of refugees from Ukraine stood at just over a million people under temporary protection. Add to that around 214,000 applications from asylum seekers unrelated to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the German Interior Ministry. This means that more people have sought refuge in Germany this year than in 2015 and 2016 combined.
But things are different this time around. While authorities on the ground still fear being overwhelmed, the situation has changed, including the way EU countries deal with refugees. Here are three key points:
1. Refugees from Ukraine form a separate category
First of all, Germany is no longer going it alone, as the EU has activated the so-called temporary protection directive for Ukrainian refugees. This means that they automatically receive temporary asylum status and can claim social benefits in any EU country, spreading the burden between countries in the bloc.
In Germany, a new distribution system known as “FREE”, in place since July, takes into account family ties and other factors. This created a steering effect, as the distribution can be linked and tracked. In addition, when they are able to arrange private accommodation themselves, refugees from Ukraine can choose where to settle. Only if they apply for social assistance or housing can they be distributed throughout Germany like other refugees.
Almost three quarters of Ukrainian refugees live in private apartments and houses, according to the study “Ukrainian Refugees in Germany” (conducted between August and October this year). Of these, around 25% live with relatives or friends in Germany. Only 9% live in shared accommodation for refugees.
On the other hand, refugees from outside the Ukraine are distributed among the German states via the so-called “EASY” system. After an initial period in the regional reception centres, the migrants are randomly distributed to the municipalities of the country.
This system does not take into account individual preferences; it only grants a higher probability of assigning refugees to settlements in the same region if family members have been registered in the region – and if there is capacity.
2. Not all towns and villages are overwhelmed – yet
“Reception capacities are exhausted in many places, tent shelters and gymnasiums must already be used,” said Burkhard Jung, mayor of Leipzig and vice-president of the German Association of Cities, in November.
Lots of deja vu with 2015 on this front.
“We don’t know a concrete figure, but we receive comments from very many federal states that municipalities are reaching their limits,” Alexander Handschuh, spokesman for the German Association of Cities and Municipalities, confirmed earlier this month. . He pointed out that big cities like Berlin or Munich are more popular among refugees from Ukraine – a trend that continues.
“In the meantime, however, heavy loads are being reported all over Germany,” Handschuh added.
While many refugees from Ukraine were initially welcomed into private accommodation “with an overwhelming willingness to help”, this is becoming increasingly difficult as the war drags on. Thus, German municipalities are now calling for help from the federal government, demanding full reimbursement of the costs of hosting refugees and demanding greater reception capacity at the regional level.
Migration researcher Hannes Schammann from the University of Hildesheim says he is hearing mixed signals from local authorities. “There are isolated hotspots where we have this situation with gyms and such. But there are also municipalities where it can still be managed quite well,” Schammann told POLITICO.
Newly arrived refugees are not the problem, he thinks. According to him, the problem is rather the German bureaucracy, because the distribution system itself causes delays and uncertainties.
3. Although the situation is tense, it is not surprising
The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has confirmed that migration pressure is “increasing significantly” not only in Germany, but also at the EU’s external borders. “Although the numbers have increased every year … the current influx of arrivals has a higher momentum compared to previous years,” he said. As to why, the BAMF cited a catch-up effect after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, and the economic and political situations in transit states such as Turkey, Tunisia and Libya.
Still, the number of refugees now arriving from countries other than Ukraine is within the expected range, Schammann said. However, this becomes a problem when this flow encounters an uneven distribution of Ukrainian refugees.
In addition, many municipalities retained the physical and political infrastructure built during the situation in 2015 and 2016. “Those who maintained it did quite well,” Schammann pointed out.
Besides Ukraine, the main countries of origin of asylum seekers remain Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iraq, as in previous years. “There are currently no notable developments in the various countries of origin,” a spokesman for the Interior Ministry told POLITICO. Nevertheless, he confirmed a somewhat tense situation in terms of reception capacity for refugees.
Schammann expects the debate to intensify due to bottlenecks that could arise due to the distribution of refugees already in Germany. He described it as a difficult situation and certainly a source of pressure on the system. “But he’s not collapsing. It will continue to operate regardless,” he said.
Without a magic crystal ball, the ministry refused to give any outlook for the coming months.