Germany is the first European country to free Syrian refugees from a draconian bureaucratic “trap”

A Syrian man and child disembarking in Greece.
A Syrian man and child disembarking in Greece.
Image: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
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Germany, which has a better track record than most European countries on sheltering refugees, has made a move to address one of the more lunatic aspects of the European immigration crisis. The country has said (link in German) it will stop sending away refugees of the five-year war in Syria, and instead process their asylum claims in Germany.

Why doesn’t that already happen? It’s the result of a 2003 piece of legislation that human rights organizations have long been describing as a “trap.”

The legislation is called the Dublin Protocol, and was designed to stop migrants traveling through Europe to countries with favorable regimes before claiming asylum. If people need asylum, the argument ran, they should be claiming it straight away—and the state in which they do so should remain responsible for processing it.

There is a huge problem with this logic, however, and many northern European countries have chosen to turn a blind eye to it: geography. Most people fleeing from the wars in Syria or Afghanistan, as well as those trying to get to Europe for economic reasons, come by land or by sea. The land route brings them through Turkey, which is not a member of the EU, to Greece and Bulgaria, which are.

The sea routes, which are much more perilous and have led to thousands of deaths this year alone, lead migrants to Greece, to Italy, or to the islands of Lampedusa and Malta. Without the funds or paperwork necessary, most asylum claimants aren’t able to fly into the airports of northern European countries.

Migrants fall as they encounter Macedonian forces at the border with Greece, in August 2015.
Migrants fall as they encounter Macedonian forces at the border with Greece, in August 2015.
Image: Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski

Greece’s asylum system buckled under the weight of refugee numbers as long ago as 2010 (paywall). But because of the Dublin protocol, it continued to receive new applications—and of course, new people to feed and house, which it has largely failed to do—not only across its southern borders, but from the rest of Europe as well.

In a 2010 report (pdf), Amnesty International, a human rights charity, said it was concerned that state parties to the Dublin Regulation continued and in some cases resumed the return of asylum-seekers to Greece “despite continuing serious concerns with regard to the treatment of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants” in that country. They called on the EU to end “the Dublin II trap.”

Five years later, the trap continues to operate, though with some exceptions. In that time, the migration crisis has become much, much worse. In 2011, the Syrian war began. It has killed 250,000 people so far, and placed millions of civilians in peril. In the first half of 2015, 185,000 people claimed asylum in Europe, a 90% hike from the year before.

Kira Gehrmann, a spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said that in reality, Germany has never sent a huge amount of Syrian refugees back to the country where they first landed. She added that since January, Germany has received 44,417 asylum applications from Syrian nationals. 

The move is nevertheless “very significant” because it sends a message to other governments, said Anna Musgrave, an advocacy manager at the UK’s Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization.

“It’s high time the British Government made a similar statement,” she said via email. “So far our government has been trying its best to prevent refugees from reaching our shores; pulling up the drawbridge and forcing people to place their lives in smugglers’ hands. That’s simply not good enough. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with other European countries and commit to offering refuge to as many people as possible.”

Many of the Syrians who manage to file an asylum claim in Europe are successful; but that’s only part of the problem. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, said that in July 12.2 million people in the country itself needed humanitarian aid, and hundreds of thousands were failing to get it. More aid could mitigate the flow of migrants out of the country, another UN official suggested today.

Right now, however, refugees continue to flow into Europe and its neighboring countries, which are for the most part reacting with increasingly authoritarian measures. A huge camp of migrants who want to cross the channel and get to the UK, is being barely kept in check at Calais in France by a swelling police presence and ever more fences.

Macedonia last week tried to close its southern border, leading to a situation in which desperate families ran from security officials across fields, tried to scale barbed-wire fences, meeting with tear gas, and armed guards. Macedonia finally gave up, allowing the migrants through. Hungary, which is in the EU, is building a fence between it and Serbia, which isn’t.

The process of absorbing refugees hasn’t been easy on Germany, meanwhile. Earlier this week riots broke out in Heidenau, where a new asylum center recently opened. The country may absorb as many as 800,000 migrants this year, according to the Federal Office.