Of all the irresponsible decisions taken in recent years by European politicians, few will cause as much human misery as Angela Merkel’s plan to welcome Syrian refugees to Germany. Hailed as enlightened moral leadership, it is in fact the result of panic and muddled thinking. Her pronouncements will lure thousands more into the hands of unscrupulous people-traffickers. Her insistence that the rest of the continent should share the burden will add political instability to the mix. Merkel has made a dire situation worse.
On Tuesday last week, Germany declared that any Syrian who reaches the country can claim asylum there. In the days that followed, 25,000 arrived at Munich central station and that number is growing fast. Some trains from Austria have been diverted to other German cities to ease the pressure. Merkel now wants to use her clout to distribute these refugees around Europe — arguing that EU plans to resettle 160,000 may not be sufficient.
The current wave of migration started about 15 years ago, an unforeseen side-effect of globalisation. It has been vastly intensified by the chaos which followed the Arab Spring, and particularly the civil war in Syria. The EU’s responsibility is laid out in the Dublin Convention of 1990, which decrees that refugees must claim asylum in the first European Union country that they reach. This crucial safeguard was torn up by Merkel when her government declared that it will be ‘responsible’ for processing the claims of Syrians. The Dublin rules were made for a reason: to save lives, as well as to protect Europe’s borders. German panic has imperilled both priorities.
The welcome that has been given to refugees in Germany is remarkable. But encouraging these people to continue their journey is risky. The 71 refugees found dead in a lorry on an Austrian motorway last month might still be alive today had they ended their journey in Budapest. Some 7,000 refugees are estimated to have passed through Vienna during one day this week, but fewer than 100 claimed asylum there, choosing instead to head on north. Austria is rich, but Merkel’s promise exerts such a pull that people don’t want to stop until they reach Germany.
The distinction between refugee and economic migrant is also being elided. Many of the Syrians making this journey are fleeing war, but many others are fleeing camps in neighbouring Jordan or Turkey. The incentive to do this is growing, because life there is becoming harsher. As Michael Moller, the head of the UN’s Geneva office, warned this week, these millions will ‘get up and leave and come to Europe’ unless conditions in the camps improve. Iraqis are also joining in; extra flights are being laid on from Baghdad to Turkey as people go on the move in the belief that Merkel has created a window of migration opportunity that may not last. It is at this point that the distinction between refugee and immigrant, on which European law is based, breaks down.
The economic pull is exacerbated because, unlike in previous times, the residents of the refugee camps have access to mobile phones and information. They know that Germany has said it expects to accept 800,000 asylum-seekers this year (a figure greater than the population of some EU members). They will have heard about — or seen — the welcome being given to refugees arriving there, the reception committees and the politicians holding placards saying ‘refugees welcome’. All of this will encourage many more to embark on the perilous journey to Europe.
The European Union’s energies would be far better spent improving life in the camps and finding ways to allow people to work there, as Professor Paul Collier suggested in these pages last month. The camps should be properly funded. The UNHCR claims it currently has a $795 million funding gap in its Syrian operation. France has given a fraction of what Britain has to this work, which puts a rather different perspective on François Hollande’s insistence that Britain must take on more of the refugee burden. No country in Europe has given more to the refugee camps than Britain.
Another danger of Merkel’s open-door policy is that it may make Syria’s recovery from civil war harder. By accepting those who have managed to make it to Europe, rather than those still in the camps, Germany is, intentionally or not, cherry-picking the more prosperous members of what used to be Syrian society, those who have sufficient resources to pay the traffickers. Without them, their ravaged country is far less likely to make a recovery once the fighting eventually stops. As the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius warned this week, ‘If all these refugees come to Europe or elsewhere, then Isis has won the game.’
Compounding Merkel’s folly is her desire to impose mandatory refugee quotas on the rest of the EU. (Britain won’t be part of this, we are one of the countries with an opt-out.) Forcing countries to accept refugees they don’t want is bound to boost support for populist anti-immigrant parties. German public opinion might be strikingly liberal on these issues — it is important to remember that, before her recent announcements, Merkel was being criticised for not doing enough to help — but opinion in other European countries is far less so. Strong-arming recalcitrant eastern European countries into taking a significant numbers of refugees will push politics to the nationalist right in these countries. In France, Marine Le Pen has already been making political hay out of Merkel’s actions.
Given the disaster unfolding on the continent, it’s odd to see Britain coming under pressure to become more like Germany. The Prime Minister’s decision to accept refugees from the camps, rather than send thousands more into the hands of people traffickers, seems to demonstrate a better understanding of the issue. To criticise the Prime Minister for not taking those refugees who have already reached Europe is bizarre; it seems to play into the hands of the people-traffickers, who would be pushing for their customers — those who have reached Europe — to be given priority over those who are still on the Syrian border.
Many in Cameron’s circle are furious at Merkel. There is a suspicion that, as one of the Prime Minister’s confidants puts it, ‘This has more to do with what happened in Europe 70 years ago than what is happening today.’ There is also anger at the criticism being directed at London from other European capitals. One Downing Street figure says that if Britain were not supporting the camps on Syria’s borders, at least a million more people would be coming to Europe. And we should remember those who aren’t even in the camps, those who have been forced from their homes but remain trapped inside Syria.
To save lives, Europe needs to stop people from thinking that if they take the risk of trying to cross into the European Union, then they will be able to claim asylum. This means turning around the boats that attempt the journey, and paying for processing stations in Turkey and Egypt. This may be hard, but there is nothing compassionate about giving desperate people false hope.
Britain can be the voice of sanity in this debate, while others panic. Cameron can point out that refugees and migrants who are already in Europe are not in imminent fear for their lives. Those gathered at Calais trying to cross the Channel might have once fled Syria, Somali or other war-torn countries — but they are now risking their lives to leave France, which is another matter entirely.
Merkel’s actions, now, will be hard to correct: her words cannot be unsaid. She has exacerbated a problem that will be with us for years, perhaps decades. More than 40 per cent of those who applied for asylum in Germany in the first half of this year came from the former Yugoslavia; the last of its wars ended 14 years ago. Handling all of this correctly will require true statesmanship, which means thinking through consequences. Merkel is failing that test spectacularly.