The year 2016 shows a decrease in the volume of refugees, due to support programs, international initiatives, strengthened borders and increasingly pervasive nationalist sentiments. According to a summary of the year by Die Welt, it is estimated that 200,000-305,000 new asylum-seekers are taken in Germany in the first eleven months of 2016, almost 600,000 less than in 2015. However, 745,545 asylum applications are submitted, which is 268,869 more than in 2015. Despite the increase in applications, the rate of rejected asylum applications also increases from the previous year, with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) telling reporters, “We’ve been successful in managing and controlling the process of migration.”
By the end of October, it is estimated that 206,200 people living in Germany are technically required to leave, 153,700 of which possess, however, a suspension of deportation. 23,750 people are deported from Germany by the end of November, almost 3,000 more than in the preceding year (20,888). Around 55,000 people returned willingly with financial help from Germany. Around 19,720 people were denied entry into Germany in the first eleven months.
According a report by Der Spiegel, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) becomes more efficient in 2016. It increases its staff from 2,300 in early 2015 to 8,000 by September 2016. However, despite this marked increase in bureaucratic organs and efficiency, the volume of pending applications increases to over half a million.
On January 1st, 2016, a group of immigrants predominantly from Iraq, Syria, Morocco, robs and sexually assaults dozens of women during the New Year’s Eve celebration in the Cologne central train station. Questions surrounding the country of origin of the perpetrators begin to arise. It remains unclear as to the number of perpetrators, whether the attacks were premeditated and if there is any connection to refugees. Communication is reportedly inefficient between police, the media and the public, resulting in Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers’s forced resignation. Despite the police’s pronouncement that there is little evidence for a connection to refugees, a number of government officials, including Angela Merkel, connect the incident to the ongoing “refugee crisis,” calling for stronger immigration laws and processing procedures.
On February 3rd, the Federal Cabinet (Das Bundeskabinett) introduces a second package of refugee regulations and laws: Asylum Package II (Asylpaket II). In this package, family reunification is prevented if the refugee doesn’t meet the request for asylum, yet is still not deported due to a persistent threat of torture or persecution in the country of origin. An exception is made for Syrian refugees. The package also attempts to make the processing of asylum applications more efficient and names Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia ‘safe countries of origin’ (‘sichere Herkunftsstaaten’). The package is adopted on February 25th. On February 4th, Angela Merkel attends the London conference “Supporting Syria and The Region.” Germany commits 2.3 billion euros, spread over three years, towards solving the ‘refugee crisis’; 1.2 billion euros are immediately donated towards humanitarian aid programs, with another 1.1 billion euros saved for 2017 and 2018. On top of this, Germany commits 200 million euros to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and its “Partnership for Prospects” program whose aim is to make job opportunities accessible for refugees in the Middle East. The project “Wir Zusammen” (Us Together) is also founded with initially 36 companies investing in creating jobs and initiatives that support refugees. By September, the program will have created 1,800 internships, 500 training positions and more than 400 full-time positions, numbers deemed too small by Angela Merkel at a summit for German companies the same month.
Just before the EU-Summit in Brussels on the 18th and 19th of February, Angela Merkel gives a statement in which she sets the goal of reducing refugees by building programs and infrastructure abroad as well as of reaching a deal between the EU and Turkey. At the EU-Summit, a number of conclusions are reached: borders must be reinforced and protected, NATO and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) should cooperate in reconnaissance and surveillance efforts, and the EU-Turkey Action Plan is reemphasized as a priority in preventing smuggling networks.
Starting in February, membership in the far-right Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) group, which had filled the streets of Dresden with 25,000 anti-migrant protesters exactly one year prior, begins to dwindle. By the end of 2016, PEGIDA members may number in the hundreds.
On February 24th, Austria hosted the “Managing Migration Together” conference, where the Western Balkan states met, with the somewhat explicit and controversial exclusion of Germany, Greece, and representatives of the European Union.
On March 8th, Turkey and the EU discuss and eventually sign an agreement on March 20th, that follows a “one-in, one-out” policy; for every Syrian migrant deported to Turkey due to insufficient documentation or a rejected asylum claim, one Syrian in Turkey is resettled in the EU. Moreover, the EU is to expedite the distribution of its €3 billion aid-package to Turkey and to reconsider Turkey’s bid to join the EU in July. The deal’s implementation, however, is weak; only 1,187 migrants are returned to Turkey by early December. On March 9th, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia—the migrant corridor—effectively close down their borders in an effort to bring the situation under control. Only refugees with valid papers and a visa are allowed to travel through and must declare the country into which they are travelling to be their desired place of residence. This leaves 60,000 migrants and refugees stuck in Greece or a cycle of deportations between various countries. Although it does decrease the volume of refugees in the migrant corridor, other more dangerous routes are then explored, including the Mediterranean Sea. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, announces that Germany will not cap the number of asylum seekers it can take in, for which she faces increasing political pressure.
Despite the attacks in Cologne, there is a reported drop of more than 18 percent in crimes committed by immigrants in the first three months of 2016. Conversely, migrants increasingly become targets and victims of hate crimes and criminal activity, with 3,533 attacks on refugees and refugee homes. Of these, 921 attacks on refugee homes were recorded by the Federal Office of Criminal Activity (BKA), 857 of which were perpetrated by the radical right.
In April, BAMF director Frank-Jürgen Weise highlights another problem facing the administration: integration and education. Weise estimates that there will be a shortfall of 200,000 spots in integration courses in 2016. To counteract the shortcomings of the education system, the government increases the pay rate for teachers on July 1st, in order to keep incentive up for teachers facing an overwhelming volume of students. On April 9th, around 500 refugees hailing from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Syria drown in the Mediterranean as a smuggler-ship capsizes. A report by Reuters and BBC in December details the lack of accountability virtually everywhere; neither the smugglers, nor any political body have been held responsible in what is the deadliest known shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 2016.
On June 23rd, the United Kingdom votes on withdrawal from membership in the European Union, dubbed “Brexit.” The referendum passes, upsetting media expectations and sending shockwaves throughout Europe and the world. After the fact, conventional wisdom, including in Germany, attributes the surprise result to anti-immigrant sentiment stoked in no small part by the liberal EU refugee policies championed by Angela Merkel.
Artists concerned about the anti-immigrant backlash and government reticence attempt to address the issue in provocative ways. In July, the Berlin-based Center for Political Beauty announce a performance art piece to protest EU restrictions on entry without a visa called “Eating Refugees,” which they say will involve flying 100 refugees from Turkey to be eaten by tigers. The performance never takes place. Artists, primarily in Berlin, also reach out to Syrian refugee artists already in Germany to help integrate them into the art scene and give their voices broader exposure, including refugee musicians like the band Musiqana and the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra.
On July 18th, an underage, registered refugee carries out a terror attack in a train heading towards Würzburg. The following week, on July 24th, a 27-year old Syrian asylum-seeker suicide-bombed a wine bar in Ansbach. These two attacks intensified the debate around refugee politics and raised questions about the connection between immigration and terrorism.
At the beginning of August, Turkish officials are pulled out of Greece who are there to help Greek migration bureaucracy, thereby signaling an intensification of migration politics between Turkey and the EU. German Interior Ministers of the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU) issue a joint statement, in which they call for the prohibition of burkas in public spaces.
While PEGIDA’s membership thins, momentum for the anti-migrant, anti-Islam parliamentary party Alternative for Germany (AfD) continues to rise. In September the AfD comes in second to the Social Democrats (SPD) in regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, leaving the CDU in third at 19%, a record low for the Christian Democrats in the state. The AfD, which has no official relationship with PEGIDA but can count many of its supporters as members of PEGIDA as well, surges into the state parliaments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Baden-Württemberg, and the dominant media interpretation attributes the losses for both the CDU and SPD to the AfD’s opposition to migration.
In September, there is another EU-Summit, which results in the unofficial, pessimist-realistic slogan “flexible Solidarität,” denoting a shift towards the self-interest of nation states and away from communal EU politics with regards to the “refugee crisis.”
At the beginning of October, the EU signs a deal with Afghanistan that attempts to provide monetary incentive for refugees and immigrants to return to Afghanistan; the deal provokes protests on the left with the claim that Afghanistan is not yet safe enough. The immediate goal of the program is around 12,000 deported asylum-seekers. Germany invests 150,000 million euros in the program Perspektive Heimat for the next three years.
On November 9th, Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, shocking commentators the world over and drawing immediate rebuke from the German press. Der Spiegel devotes the first of many grotesque magazine covers to Trump, declaring “the end of the world (as we know it)” and explaining the threat of a Trump presidency to liberal democracy in numerous op-eds. During the campaign Trump said of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, referring to her softer stance on immigration and refugees, that she “wants to be America’s Merkel.”
On December 19th, Anis Amri, a migrant from Tunisia who was denied asylum, drives a van through a Christmas market and hits the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in what later was deemed as a terror attack. This attack reinvigorates discussions concerning the ‘refugee crisis,’ with calls for stronger borders and governance. In October of 2017, Der Spiegel reports on a private investigation of the Berlin police department and justice system; the blame for the attack is placed on both the police (for their failure to monitor a flagged person of interest) and the general court system for not effectively removing Amri for possession and distribution of drugs.
By the end of 2016, at least 5,000 refugees died en route in the Mediterranean Sea, making 2016 the deadliest year in the history of Europe’s refugee politics.