Chancellor wants to tangibly reduce refugee numbers

Refugees cross the border from Austria close to Wegscheid in Bavaria during a snow shower on 21 November 2015.

The German government is pressing for a European solution to bring down refugee numbers

Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Weigel

At the same time we must address the factors that force people to leave their homes in the first place, she said. The government will take stock of the situation again following the European Council meeting in mid-February.

On Wednesday, before her meeting in Wildbad Kreuth with the CSU group in the Bavarian state parliament, Angela Merkel said that Turkey has a key role to play in reducing the numbers of refugees arriving in the EU. This will be reflected in the first German-Turkish government consultations that are to be held on Friday in Berlin.

Situation to be reassessed in mid-February

Angela Merkel also pointed to the importance of the Syria Donors Conference on 4 February in London that is designed to improve the living conditions of refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as the European Council meeting in mid-February in Brussels. The refugee crisis will be a major point on the agenda of the meeting as well as the question of the UK’s future in the EU. Germany will be contributing its views. Angela Merkel said, "After these meetings we can reassess the situation and see where we stand."

Federal Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in Wildbad Kreuth, that if Germany were also forced to close its borders it would not be a German problem, but a European problem. Naturally, it would impact on the Schengen system, and thus on European integration, the common market and probably also the euro system. Europe must thus act more swiftly to find a common solution. "We have a limited amount of time," said Wolfgang Schäuble.

Austria’s plans to be evaluated later

In the meantime, on Wednesday Austria announced plans to limit the number of asylum seekers it will admit. In Berlin, Peter Altmaier, Head of the Federal Chancellery did not comment on the announcement in any detail. He did, however, say that the German government will "assess any impacts when the time comes". As far as he was informed, he said, the Austrian plans did not involve a strict upper limit but a benchmark or reference value. The government in Vienna still wants to commission legal opinions, said the government’s refugee coordinator. "We must wait and see what transpires," said Peter Altmaier.

Commenting on the numbers of refugees in Germany, federal government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said on Wednesday lunchtime that although the numbers are significantly lower than they were a few weeks or months ago, the reduction "is not nearly enough". "We already have a better ordered system, but we must continue to work on this agenda," said Steffen Seibert.
Asylum-seekers with no entitlement to stay in Germany must be returned to their own countries faster so that refugees who are entitled to stay can be better integrated.

National, European and international efforts

In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Saturday (16 January), Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also underscored the unremitting efforts of the German government. "We must reduce the numbers of refugees. Our country can cope with one million refugees in one year, but we cannot cope with that number of refugees every year. That is why we have put together two asylum packages, one of which has already been approved by the German Bundestag. The second package will follow shortly."

Recently, in her New Year’s address, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that work was ongoing at all levels to resolve the refugee situation. "At national level, in Europe and at international level, we are working to improve the protection of Europe’s external borders, to replace illegal migration with legal migration, to fight the factors that force people to flee their homes in the first place, and thus to achieve a tangible and lasting reduction in refugee numbers."

Stepping up the rate of return

With a view to the swifter return of asylum-seekers from the Maghreb states, government spokesperson Steffen Seibert stated last Friday at the government press conference that asylum-seekers from North African states who have no residence entitlement will also have to leave Germany. "We already have a readmission agreement with Algeria. That means that on paper everything is regulated. In practice, there are in fact individual cases that prove to be very difficult, and we must discuss how the practice can be brought into line with the provisions of the agreement."

Today, the Maghreb consists essentially of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which are linked by the Atlas Mountains.

Martin Schäfer, the Federal Foreign Office spokesperson, added that it is not enough to negotiate readmission agreements. There are many opportunities to "make it difficult or impossible to implement fundamental political agreements of this sort in practice".

Talks with the Maghreb states and the Western Balkan states

Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are working together to overcome "bureaucratic obstacles", he reported. The goal is to agree first with the Western Balkan states and then with the countries of Northern Africa on the use of EU-issued "laissez passer" travel documents, said Martin Schäfer.

A "laissez passer" is an EU-issued standard travel document that would allow non-EU citizens without travel documents to be returned to their home counties. This travel document could be used by non-EU citizens leaving the EU voluntarily for their home countries, provided the latter recognise the document.

"And that is the monumental task facing us. We did not begin working on it yesterday or last year. We have been working on it for a great many years and it is an arduous task. I can assure you that the Federal Foreign Minister and the Federal Minister of the Interior are addressing the matter with great energy and vigour, also in the personal talks they conduct with these countries," said Martin Schäfer.