For Those Fleeing Poverty, Not War, Germany’s Doors Are Closed

In the midst of an influx of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers, a wave of migrants from the Balkans has caught Berlin by surprise – and put a strain on its warm welcome.

Migrants wait on a platform at the train station in the town of Gevgelija, on the Macedonian-Greek border, to receive permission from police officers before boarding trains to Serbia on August 23, 2015. More than 1,500 mostly Syrian refugees, trapped in a no-man's land for three days, entered Macedonia from Greece, after police allowed them to pass despite earlier trying to hold back the crowd using stun grenades. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI        (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants wait on a platform at the train station in the town of Gevgelija, on the Macedonian-Greek border, to receive permission from police officers before boarding trains to Serbia on August 23, 2015. More than 1,500 mostly Syrian refugees, trapped in a no-man's land for three days, entered Macedonia from Greece, after police allowed them to pass despite earlier trying to hold back the crowd using stun grenades. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — It doesn’t get much bleaker than Germany in winter, if you believe the images. Driving rain, a cold bagged meal, grim-faced police loading people and bags onto buses. This is the fate facing would-be asylum seekers from across the West Balkans, according to a video produced by the German government for distribution in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania.

“Please take this information very seriously,” warns a male voice, off camera. “Too many people have already taken on the difficult and expensive journey that has ended in swift, forced deportation…. Don’t ruin yourself and your family, financially and economically.”

The four-minute-long clip is part of the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s ongoing campaign to stem the flow of migrants arriving in droves from the Western Balkans. There have been Facebook posts and newspaper ads, in Albanian, Serbian, and other Balkan languages.

Germany isn’t alone: Switzerland, Denmark, and Hungary have planned similar campaigns. But as Berlin grapples with an unprecedented influx of people escaping war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, the question of what to do with those deemed “economic refugees” — people fleeing poverty and unemployment — has bogged down authorities and helped fan the flames of xenophobic sentiment.

Germany received nearly 220,000 asylum applications in the first six months of the year. And on Aug. 19, the government announced it’s expecting that number to climb to 800,000 by the end of the year — the most in the European Union, by far. Few issues have captivated the German media and public like this one. It’s not just the ugly outbreak of violence against asylum seekers, or the international headlines it has spawned. The plight of refugees escaping horrors in Syria and Somalia has spurred a much larger outpouring of solidarity in recent weeks. That has manifested in marches, donations, and large-scale volunteer efforts.

But the mass wave of migration — not from Syria or Iraq — but from just beyond the EU’s borders seems to have caught most by surprise.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees started seeing an increasing volume in asylum applications from the Balkans in 2012, after Germany’s highest court ruled to raise the basic benefits for asylum seekers immediately. But the numbers have soared to a new level this year: Germany processed nearly 63,000 applications from Kosovo and Albania alone from January through July, compared to a little over 7,500 during the same period last year. In the first six months of the year, 40 percent of all asylum applications came from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. That influx has drawn new attention, at a time when huge numbers of people fleeing an increasingly unstable Middle East are also seeking shelter and safety in Germany.

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Around 99 percent of those applying for asylum from the Balkans will be rejected. Germany grants refugee status to those fleeing political persecution or war. Applications from Syrians who have found their way onto German soil, for example, are overwhelmingly accepted (more than 85 percent in the first half of the year). But poverty or lack of opportunity are not considered grounds for asylum.

The Interior Ministry’s video may be desolate, but it’s also accurate: Those seeking asylum on economic grounds will be sent home.

“The economic situation in [the Western Balkans] is bad, so it’s understandable that people are seeking a better future somewhere else. But that’s not a reason to grant asylum,” Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s interior minister, said in an interview with the daily newspaper Bild last Sunday. “We need those capacities for those who really require protection.”

Regardless of the origin country, authorities review each case individually. But Aydan Özoguz, the federal commissioner for migration, refugees and integration, says her office is straining under a backlog of about a quarter of a million applications. That has sparked efforts to speed up processing and deportation of anyone who is considered an economic refugee. But how to do so is controversial.

Last November, the government passed new legislation deeming Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia “safe states of origin.” It’s assumed that applicants from those countries are not in danger of political persecution if they’re sent back. The change in classification has helped Berlin fast-track their evaluation and deportation.

Now there are growing calls — particularly among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party — to extend the “safe country” status to Kosovo, Albania, and Montenegro, too. The opposition Greens and Social Democrats argue there is little proof that expanding the list of safe countries will actually stop migrants from coming.

And refugee organizations warn that this measure will set a dangerous precedent. “There are certainly human rights violations in those countries that are relevant for asylum,” argued Marei Pelzer of the Frankfurt-based refugee organization Pro Asyl. “Saying that you no longer look at individual cases flies in the face of refugee rights.”

Individual review is still guaranteed. But with nearly 33,000 asylum seekers arriving from Kosovo the first half of the year alone, calls for change are growing.

Polls suggest that many Germans agree. According to the latest survey from public broadcaster ZDF, around 75 percent of those asked believe there should be a clear line drawn between economic refugees and those fleeing war and persecution.

But critics say the term “economic refugees” itself has created a dangerous stigma that has become difficult to shake.

Individual asylum seekers receive 140 euros a month in cash from the government, on top of basic food, hygiene, and medical needs (married couples and families receive less per person) for three months. After that, the meals are no longer guaranteed — but the original stipend is supplemented with a little over 200 euros for food and provisions.

De Maiziere sparked controversy when he suggested those benefits might need to be revisited. In an interview with ZDF on Aug. 13, he said his European colleagues have warned him that Germany’s benefits are too generous, encouraging economic refugees to apply for asylum here even if the chances of acceptance are slim.

Bavaria’s conservative state premier, Horst Seehofer, has come under fire for accusing economic refugees of abusing the system and taking advantage of Germany’s benefits.

“We have to be very careful when talking about abuse in that way because everyone has the right to apply for asylum here,” said Jochen Oltmer, a professor of modern history and a migration expert at Osnabrück University in northwestern Germany. “There is virtually no data to prove abuse of the system.”

Far-right groups in particular have focused on economic refugees as a prime example of what has gone wrong with Germany’s immigration system. The neo-Nazi NPD, or National Democratic Party of Germany, has urged the government to crack down on economic refugees from the Balkans. And that has provided ready fodder for their xenophobia.

“The conclusion they draw is that all refugees are bad for Germany,” said Robert Lüdecke from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin, an NGO that tracks and fights right-wing extremism. “That’s constantly being used by the right to cast the entire asylum system in doubt.”

Authorities have struggled to contain a sharp rise of right-wing violence, particularly arson attacks on centers for asylum seekers across the country. There have been more incidents in the first half of this year than all of last. And the violence has escalated. Last weekend, tensions spiraled out of control when police and neo-Nazi protestors clashed in the town of Heidenau in Saxony, where an asylum-seeker shelter was recently opened.

Dozens of officers were injured. Lawmakers condemned the protesters as a “radical mob” and the most “un-German” of all Germans. Chancellor Merkel, who had come under increasing fire for remaining silent on the anti-refugee violence, finally spoke out this week. She visited the town and refugees at the shelter on Wednesday. She was booed by a group of far-right demonstrators chanting “traitor.”

The violence has been particularly hard to stomach for the hundreds of thousands who have jumped in to help refugees. Across the country, local volunteers have offered German lessons, donated clothes, helped navigate the web of bureaucracy and paperwork — regardless of where asylum seekers come from.

But Oltmer says that outpouring of willingness to help could start to change if the influx doesn’t let up — especially if Germany’s mighty economy starts to falter. “Migration always comes along with conflict. Those who migrate are considered competition for scarce resources — they are perceived as competition for jobs, for political influence,” he said. “You see disagreements over the question of who belongs, who are we, and who are they.”

For now, Merkel is stepping up pressure on her counterparts from the Western Balkans. They are meeting at a summit in Vienna this week to discuss the hundreds of thousands of refugees transiting through the Balkans on their way to wealthier European countries. But Merkel and her other European counterparts also want Balkan leaders to do their part in giving young, disillusioned youth a reason to stay in their home countries.

“Europe is saying, ‘Look we have worked hard to stabilize the Balkans, things are not perfect, but we certainly think it’s a lot better than the situation in the Middle East or parts of Africa,’” said James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert and senior research fellow at the London School of Economics.

But economically, the situation is, for many, incredibly bleak, he added. In Kosovo especially, the post-independence euphoria of seven years ago has given way to corruption, unemployment, and hopelessness.

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At a youth hostel-turned-asylum shelter in former West Berlin, social worker Jonas Feldmann says this facility, too, sees a large number of migrants from Kosovo and Albania and the entire Balkans region. The drab, gray building with faded yellow balconies blends quietly into the background along one of Berlin’s major arteries.

Inside, newly-arrived asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria greet each other in the narrow corridors. They set up in sparse but comfortable dorm-style rooms, sometimes with families but often on their own. And they keep coming.

“People have dreams and ideas,” he said. “A few manage to make it through and those few that make it are held up as the positive example that a lot of others base their hopes on.”

Still, he says, two families from the Balkans left the shelter and went home this month on their own. They were well aware they would be picked up by police, put on chartered planes and flown back to their home country

Feldmann argues that the glaring labor shortage Germany is facing in particular fields — nursing and elderly care, for example — are cases where the government could offer economic migrants an alternative to asylum, a win-win situation. Otherwise, they have no other way to get a foot in the door. (Government officials say they’re working on similar proposals.)

The halls bustle with chatter as Feldmann makes rounds along the ground-floor. Syrians, Africans, Afghans are returning from the grocery store, making use of the wifi and lounging just outside the front door, under the hazy summer sun.

Fajer S., a 60-year-old travel agent and businessman who fled Damascus in April, is now waiting for his asylum application to be approved. It likely will be. In the meantime he serves as a go-between and translator, switching from Arabic to fluent English and German.

Fajer says he understands why all of his fellow asylum seekers are there, regardless of what country they come from. “A home is when you feel safe,” he said. “A home is when you feel free to talk. A home is when you are not afraid of tomorrow.”


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