2015 – The “Refugee Crisis”

The defining topic of 2015 is the refugee crisis, the arrival of over a million refugees in Germany and German society’s reaction toward them. It is “the year of the refugee,” in which, fittingly, “refugee” is the word of the year. German and European officials are quickly overwhelmed by the refugees’ arrivals which includes the ensuing needs for organized primary health care services and long-term housing situations. In the summer, the updates are so rapid that the German media begins to create daily summaries and live reports. Concepts like “culture of welcoming” (Willkommenskultur), “culture of recognition” (Anerkennungskultur), “parallel societies” (Parallelgesellschaften), “enrichment” (Bereicherung), “luck” (Chance), “politics of deterrence” (Abschreckungspolitik) and “Dark Germany” (Dunkeldeutschland) comprise German society’s different reactions to the arriving refugees and dominate public debates.

Following the summer of 2015, during which the German “culture of welcoming” and civil engagement are mostly celebrated, the public begins to face the perceived negative consequences of the “refugee crisis.” The public discussion, for example, revolves around the questions as to how much Germany will change by housing refugees, which measures should be implemented and how integration should function.

Worldwide there are almost 60 million people on the run. Over the course of the year, nearly two million refugees and immigrants arrive in Germany, according to the Federal Statistical Office. Prognoses concerning the expected number of refugees in 2015 change constantly, coinciding with the constantly increasing, actual number of refugees that reach Europe (mainly during the summer months). According to the United Nations, there have never been so many refugees as in the year 2015. For example, the Greek coastguard reports that between January and March, 40,297 people arrived on the Aegean islands. During the same period in 2014, officials report only 6,500 people. In July alone, there are as many refugees as in the entire year of 2014: officials and aid groups are overwhelmed by the 50,000 seeking help, and the situation is dramatic for the refugees. The Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge [BAMF]) predicts on February 18th that 2015 will bring at least 300,000 requests for asylum. This prediction also projects a 50 percent increase in comparison to the previous year and the highest number in 20 years overall. The UN Refugee Agency reports that in 2014 Germany receives the most asylum requests.

In the middle of February, reports on cities and local authorities begin to accumulate, all concerning the shortage of housing and support. At the same time, there are the most deportees from Germany since 2006. Already in March, the officials’ predicted number of refugees is criticized for being so low: Schleswig-Holstein expects 200,000 more asylum-seekers than what BAMF predicted. In April, there is much discussion as to how many refugees Germany must and can help. In May, 25,992 people file for asylum, 108.6 percent more than the previous May, but 4.4 percent less than in April. In the same month, BAMF adjusts its prediction of asylum requests to 450,000, while the Federal Government predicts 800,000 in August. German officials process 152,777 requests in the first eight months of the year. Alone in September they then register 164,000 refugees in Germany, whereas, according to Frontext, fewer people in total come to Europe in August. A study published in the same month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that 450,000 refugees within the European Union could receive permanent asylum. At the end of October, the Federal Government’s prognosis of 800,000 people is reached. In the meantime, it is unofficially assumed that there are up to 1.5 million refugees in the whole year while Bayern reports at the beginning of December that it has registered the millionth refugee. Differing reports circulate within the media, because not all accounts of refugee numbers are using the same data while government officials are publishing partly contradictory or false statements.

More problems arise with registering refugees, because the software for Initial Distribution of Asylum Seekers (Erstverteilung der Asylbegehrenden [EASY]) works too slowly. While in the past Germany had heavily criticized Italy for its failure to register fingerprints, it appears that the German police now is unable to collect fingerprints and photographs of refugees as well. The war refugees come predominantly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and the Balkan states. It is overwhelmingly men who are fleeing alongside almost 60,000 underage orphans, a fact that provokes intense discussion. Officials expect that women and children will follow. At the end of the year, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) report that in 2015 over one million people have migrated to the European Union (migration within Europe is not accounted for here). The number of refugees in Germany decreases at the end of the year. At the beginning of 2016, the Federal Government assumes that 1.1 million people sought protection in Germany in 2015.

Refugees come to Europe by air, land and sea; according to Frontex, there are seven main routes. Most people flee via the Mediterranean: in the first half of the year alone, over 100,000 refugees attempt to reach Europe by sea. These routes are deadly especially due to the increasingly common “phantom ship tactic” of smuggler groups, a danger known for years by the European Union. The EU’s responsibility concerning the years-long mass deaths in the Mediterranean has therefore come into question; up until now, the EU has answered with military measures against smugglers.

On April 19th, 800 refugees die in an accident at sea. In the following months, headlines were flooded by rescue attempts and death reports. On July 28th, thirteen corpses are found on a boat containing more than 520 people on board. At the beginning of August, a boat with 600 refugees capsizes just before the coast of Libya—at the end of August, a boat with 400 refugees. At the beginning of September, 58 refugees drown—at the end of September, 17 people die on the way to Kos. A week before, over 5000 asylum seekers were saved. On Christmas Day, newspapers report the rescue of over 700 refugees. The International Organization for Migration (IMO) reports that 3965 people have died at sea in 2015. Within two months, 70 children drown. On Mediterranean beaches, corpses wash up and a photo of the drowned, three-year-old Alan Kurdi circulates globally. The UN counts 1,015,078 individuals who come to Europe by sea in 2015. The project The Migrant Files, coordinated by journalists, details the extent of the perennial tragedy in the Mediterranean.

The central federal office for questions concerning refugees is the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge [BAMF]), which admits in the first quarter more refugees than ever before. At the beginning of the year, the Federal Government is pleased to announce a reduction in the processing time of asylum applications. The long processing times were also criticized by the Bertelsmann Foundation. The study “Integration of Refugees in the German Job Market” (“Die Arbeitsmarktintegration von Flüchtlingen in Deutschland”) comes to the conclusion that German officials need more time than other EU officials in processing asylum requests. Lengthy processing times complicate the integration of refugees in the job market. The duration of processing requests depends heavily on the refugee’s country of origin. The large number of asylum applications affects the workload of the administrative courts, which must deal more and more frequently with complaints concerning asylum. Over the course of the year, during which critiques of efficiency and labor structures within the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) do not abate, BAMF becomes a political issue. Manfred Schmidt, President of BAMF since 2010, resigns in September with Frank-Jürgen Weise as his successor.

At the refugee summit in May, BAMF is promised 2000 new positions and in September, the office demands 1000 additional employees. The number of unprocessed requests increases in October to over 300,000. Employees and high-level officials alike criticize BAMF heavily. Weise, who speaks of “gruesome” workflow, defends his office at the end of the year. In addition, internal documents show that BAMF was earlier denied support and that the Federal Government, as early as March, was warned by Frontex of a dramatic rise in refugee numbers. The intense workload and deplorable workflow is met with different solution strategies and pilot projects: on-call officials are requested, extra positions are created in employment offices, some refugees are approved more quickly, general expedited procedures are tested and a refugee license is introduced.

Within Germany and the larger EU, disputes arise over the correct procedure for processing refugees. The most hotly contested point is the question as to which countries even accept refugees and how many. The controversial Dublin Accord regulates refugee politics within the EU. Already in March, the UN demands a redistribution of refugees to the richer northern European countries. The first concrete plans of the EU are presented in May: Greece and Italy should be relieved of 40,000 refugees that would then be relocated according to a quota system. The establishment of transit zones and registration centers within Europe becomes a point of discussion as well. Above all, Eastern European EU member states speak out against a restructuring of European refugee politics. In September, an agreement is reached concerning the distribution of 100,000 refugees. The difficulty of implementing the new arrangement manifests not only two months later, but half a year later as well.

The costs and economic consequences arising from the refugee crisis are also hotly debated in Germany. In the middle of June, the Federal Government decides to double the aid devoted to first aid services for refugees to one million euros. This announcement comes on the heels of month-long debates between the Federal Government and other countries over the distribution of costs. At the end of the year, Germany also increases aid for refugees outside its own borders. Despite the unexpected aid, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble plans the federal budget without an increase in debt.

The question as to what long-term costs arise due to the “refugee crisis,” provokes intense discussion in the media. Studies project 10 billion, but also anywhere from 21-55 billion euros per year. The integration of refugees into the job market are to cost up to 1.1 million euros. The “refugee crisis” functions, according to some economists, like a “small stimulus package.” Many leading experts regard the long-term costs as tenable, as immigration can ultimately contribute to a growth in the German economy and can create places of employment. Consideration of costs and debt come mainly from the side of more local forms of government, while some mayors consider the challenge more positively. In these discussions, it becomes clear that the granting of work permits represents an important hurdle in job market integration. For those affected, difficulties already begin with opening a bank account.

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of people alongside their eventual continued journeys leads to chaotic conditions along Europe’s inner and outer boundaries, which in turn leads to reevaluation of border politics. Due to the volume of refugees, Germany does not implement the Dublin Accord for a couple months. On September 5th, Angela Merkel grants the refugees asylum and allows unimpeded entry. Even still, more European borders are closed than opened in 2015. Borders are not only controlled again and closed, but also reinforced with fences; the Schengen Agreement slowly becomes obsolete. Already in the middle of June, Hungary declares that it will build a fence on its border with Serbia. Due to the controversial closing of borders, refugees seek other routes. Over the course of the year, more fences are built and borders are made more impenetrable: on September 13th in Germany, Slovenia, Serbia and Macedonia, Italy, Austria and Sweden. The obsolescence of the Schengen Agreement leads to intense debates over the extent of a European crisis.

In 2015, the frequency of attacks on immigrants and refugees increases continuously. Together with FOR ASYLUM (PRO ASYL) and Courage Against Right-Wing Violence (Mut gegen rechte Gewalt), the Amadeu Antonio Foundation produces a detailed timeline of all incidents: 1246 attacks on asylum-seekers and accommodations are carried out, of which 179 involve physical harm and of which 136 are cases of arson. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz [BfV]) reports 1408 xenophobically motivated attacks and 21,933 criminal acts with far-right motivations.

The year begins with “despicable attacks on refugee homes” (“widerwärtigen Angriffen auf Flüchtlingsheime”) in Berlin and Plauen and ends with five attacks on December 31st in different places. Busses full of refugees are attacked and accommodations for asylum-seekers are set aflame in Tröglitz. In Freital, things escalate to a series of anti-immigrant protests, during which right-wing extremists occupy a hotel (meant to house refugees) and establish a Freital militia that ultimately disengages as officials suspect them of establishing a terrorist organization. Far-right protests in Heidenau prompt Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel to pay a visit to the local refugee home.

In early December, an extensive study by the Zeit shows that far-right criminals are less frequently convicted: there were 222 attacks on accommodations for asylum-seekers, but only four convictions. In May, for example, the arsonist from Escheburg is sentenced to two years surveillance. In German media, too, a Hungarian camerawoman incites outrage at the beginning of September, as she trips a fleeing father and his child. A major topic in the debate is how violence against refugees and minorities spills from the internet into the streets. Alongside far-right violence, refugees (mostly women, children and LGBT-refugees) experience sexual violence. Finally, massive brawls break out in multiple refugee homes.

Although acts of violence against refugees become drastically more frequent in 2015, the public debate centers around the question as to how criminally active refugees are and whether Islamic terrorist could succeed in coming to Europe. Initial studies show that refugees are not more prone to crime than Germans. The Federal Government declares in March and August that it has no evidence of terrorists among groups of refugees. In November, only around 10 suspects are mentioned, which German officials take as a sign that the fear of terrorists among refugees does not correspond to reality. The fact that two of attackers in Paris immigrated as refugees intensifies the debate. It is then reported that the Islamic State has obtained multiple blank passports. The black market for Syrian passports flourishes: Syrians receive asylum more easily, which is why the Syrians themselves, as they cannot obtain legal passports due to the war, resort to this option.

Intense disputes arise over asylum seekers from Kosovo and other Balkan States. Germany reacts to refugees with border control, deterrence through videos of deportation (via Facebook as well), prohibitions against multiple immigration attempts, and changes to the existing laws. Already in the first quarter, the number of refugees from the Balkans sinks. From November on, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo count as safe countries of origin.

It is not only to the situation in the Balkans that Germany reacts with changes in law and other measures meant to deter asylum-seekers. Ad campaigns that warn of a stampede towards Germany are broadcasted, asylum seekers from safe countries of origin are to be processed in expedited procedures, restrictions on chain migration are debated and the asylum laws are strengthened in October. Germany’s actions attract intense criticism. The acceleration of asylum procedures is said to quicken deportations as well. As early as September, there are as many deportees as in the entire previous year. Yet not all deportations are carried out. A point of contention is deportations to other EU-countries, Romania and Bulgaria being just two examples.

Churches participate in these critiques, as they more and more frequently grant sanctuary. Asylum-seekers, whose requests have a low chance of success, are enticed by a payout of a premium upon return to their respective countries of origin. Over the course of the year, voices that hold the legal regulations for the integration of refugees for inadequate grow louder. The CSU demands a “duty to integrate” (“Integrationspflicht”) for refugees, who—as long as their claims for asylum have a good chance of being granted—are obligated to take German courses and become acquainted with fundamental German values. The debate over mainstream German culture (Leitkultur)  has a major boom in Germany. Although even Bayern exemplarily manages the “refugee crisis,” there are nonetheless calls for a mainstream culture and integration duty, predominantly from the CSU. The CSU vociferously demands a cap on refugees, and party leader Horst Seehofer suggests a possible constitutional test.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany supports the CSU’s demand for a limit on refugees. While organizations like PRO ASYL strongly criticize such refugee limits and changes to the law, the CSU’s critique resonates with President Joachim Gauck, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. While Seehofer is not able to achieve the goal of a refugee cap, political parties unite at a coalition summit in November with all eyes aimed towards a new refugee politics. On November 1st, a new right to asylum comes into effect. Months earlier, the legal guidelines for the distribution of underage refugees was loosened and measures like the conversion of cash to services were adopted. The discussions on the “refugee crisis,” the classification of migrants, the mainstream media and integration see as a consequence increasingly louder demands for an immigration law.

In order to stop the migration of refugees to the EU, the EU adopts a controversial agreement with Turkey at the end of November. In exchange for Turkey’s willingness to hinder refugees from continuing their journey, the EU gives money and concessions for visa regulations and EU membership conditions. For some EU countries, refugee quotas are a part of the negotiations. The debate on the effectiveness and ethics of the agreement prove tenacious. The EU’s tactic of deporting refugees to other countries is a well-worn strategy. A strategy to fight the “refugee crisis” is also developed for the route through the Balkans, which is taken by the majority of refugees. Yet by the end of the year, thousands of refugees still come through the Balkans.

Over the year, multiple refugee camps arise that are defined by their catastrophic, inhumane conditions. In Calais, there live thousands of refugees. Many try to make it to the U.K. via the Euro-Tunnel. The Budapest train station is overrun by chaos. The Hungarian officials are overwhelmed. Catastrophic conditions also arise on the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni at the end of the year. Refugees that are prohibited from traveling further attempt to tear down the border fence. False reports and rumors make the situation worse. In Germany, too, the provisions and accommodations for the refugees cause problems: officials are tremendously overwhelmed, the Lageso in Berlin becomes a synonym for Germany’s inability to provide a commensurate reaction to the arriving refugees, the medical care is a catastrophe and accommodations are both infested with cockroaches and not winterproofed. Inadequate accommodations are already a problem for the sick and handicapped refugees, while even just general accommodations are intensely discussed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel becomes a key figure in the “refugee crisis.” Merkel’s statement “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”), uttered for the first time on August 31st, becomes a political mantra. She repeats this slogan on September 5th, when she comes out against a rejection of refugees and opens the borders. In October she reassigns management of the “refugee crisis” to her own office—to the boss of the Federal Chancellery and her own confidante, Peter Altmaier. Merkel receives praise for her refugee politics, yet criticism, skepticism and rejection (mostly in the rest of Europe) prevail.

In December, Merkel outlines her perspective on the events of 2015 in her much-anticipated CDU convention speech (CDU-Parteitagsrede). In her speech the chancellor conjures anew her Leitmotif of “We can make it!” and invites refugees to integrate while recognizing German values. “Multiculti leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a lie,” Merkel explains. “The opposite of this is integration, which requires an openness of people in our society. This also equally requires the willingness of those who come to us to learn and hold true to our values and traditions.” Merkel’s refugee politics is made responsible for the rise of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland [AfD]).

Artists, authors and directors react to the “refugee crisis” as well. The project “We Refugees,” which curates photos from refugees on the road, is exhibited in Berlin and Hamburg. In the middle of June, the campaign “The Dead are Coming” (“Die Toten kommen”) by the Center for Political Beauty (Zentrum für politische Schönheit) causes heated discussions over European refugee politics and Germany’s responsibility for the death of thousands of refugees. Jenny Erpenbeck’s book about African refugees in Berlin, “Gehen ging gegangen,” appears in August. Merle Kröger’s “Havarie” takes place in the Mediterranean: a cruiser hits a boat full of refugees. Above all, the “refugee crisis” resonates on the German stage. Elfriede Jelinek’s “The Wards” (“Die Schutzbefohlenen”) appears particularly frequently; the Austrian Nobel Prize Winner extends the piece. German television offers broadcasts made for refugees in particular, like “Marhaba,” and introduces Arabic subtitles.

The series “Tatort” addresses the topic as well: “Burned” (“Verbrannt”) is shown in theaters. In the middle of November, the Academy of the Jewish Museum in Berlin (Akademie des Jüdischen Museums Berlin) hosts the international conference “Post-immigrant society?! Controversies Concerning Racism, Minorities and Pluralization” (“Postmigrantische Gesellschaft?! Kontroversen zu Rassismus, Minderheiten und Pluralisierung”).

In order to facilitate faster access to universities for refugees, the Federal Government sets aside more money for universities and vocational training programs. Some German academies become independently active as well. More than 8200 German classes are established in schools. Government officials project that 68,000 kindergarten spaces are needed. Refugees are also allowed to complete an internship without official approval from the Federal Agency of Employment (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). There are also apps geared towards integration.

For example, the Ankommen App arose through a cooperation between the Federal Agency for Employment (Bundesagentur für Arbeit), the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge), the Goethe Institute (Goethe Institut) and Bayern Broadcast Center (Bayerische Rundfunk). These officials and organizations support further projects, like the Integreat App or the Goethe Institute’s Sprachlern App, which was received an official recommendation from the Product Testing Foundation (Stiftung Warentest).

The main discussion topic for the whole year is engagement with civil society. A study from the EKG, published at the end of December, shows that refugees’ engagement with sports is lacking more than usual. Further studies, like in Austria, confirm a strong willingness to help the population long-term. In total, more money is donated in 2015 than ever before. Soccer (football) organizations also lend a hand, whereby the kind of donation becomes a discussion point. Another point is the reaction of Muslim groups that stand in solidarity with the refugees.