Now more than ever, migration is expected to make or break the German government
Now more than ever, migration is expected to make or break the German government

The ‘transit centers’ for asylum seekers entering via Austria agreed between Germany's Chancellor and Interior Minister represent a political breakthrough. But what are they and would they work?

A political crisis over migration policy that had threatened to bring down the German government seems to be over, after Chancellor Merkel and the Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, struck a compromise deal on Monday night.

If their plan is supported by the coalition Social Democrats, asylum seekers arriving at the Austrian-German border will be sent back to the countries where they first registered. Austria, as well as the other EU countries, still need to agree to the proposal.

The CSU-CDU compromise

Here’s what the party leaders have proposed:

  1. A new border regime at the German-Austrian border that prevents asylum seekers from entering Germany if it is the responsibility of other EU countries to process their asylum claim.
  2. Transit centers from which asylum seekers are returned directly to the country where they first arrived in the EU (if that country agrees)
  3. In cases of refusal by the country of first arrival to sign up to the deal with Germany, the rejected asylum seeker will be turned away at the German-Austrian border under an agreement with Austria

The ‘airport model’

The new transit centers are to be located close to the border, but in German territory.

As the news site Spiegel online explains, such centers already exist in Germany. At Munich and Düsseldorf airports, asylum-seekers arriving from safe countries can be detained.

According to German asylum law, the decision on asylum in this case is made before the decision on entry. A regular claim to asylum only applies when someone is already in Germany. This ‘airport procedure’ has enabled quick decisions and deportations.

This speedy processing could apply in the new transit centers because asylum seekers would not yet have stepped foot in Germany. Legally, only those who have passed through border police and customs are considered to “reside” in Germany.

A man waits on the bridge between Braunau am Inn (Austria) and Simbach am Inn (Germany) in November, 2015

How many would be affected?

In the year to mid-June, Spiegel reports, 18,349 asylum-seekers arrived in Germany whose fingerprints were already in the Eurodac system – meaning they were already registered elsewhere in the European Union.

Different from Anchor centers

The new transit centers would be different from the so-called "Ankerzentren," or anchor centers (based on the German words for arrival, decision and return).

The anchor centers, proposed by Seehofer, were to be introduced in his home state of Bavaria. They would be places where irregular immigrants would stay for up to 18 months while a decision was being made on their case. The anchor centers would be located within German jurisdiction and asylum seekers would have passed through immigration controls.

What the other parties say

The German government raised the idea of transit centers in 2015, when the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Germany reached a record high. The SPD firmly rejected the proposal at the time. Then SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, tweeted: “Transit zones are off the table. No detention, no fence.” (November 5, 2015)

This time, the current SPD leader Andrea Nahles has praised the compromise, but said the party needed to know more detail before it could give its support. Others in the SPD have called the centers impractical and straight from the AfD’s (far-right Alternative für Deutschland) book. (Die Welt, Tuesday)

The greens and the Left Party as well as the AfD have rejected the proposals. On social media, the AfD wrote: "How weak is this compromise that Merkel and Seehofer have come up with at Germany’s expense. National laws are again being trampled on, because there’s not even a plan for controlling our borders.”  

The Left Party Parliamentarian Bernd Riexinger called the centers “de facto mass detention camps.”

The Bavarian premier from the CSU Party, Markus Söder, welcomed the compromise as a success, taking credit for having focused the migration debate on border protection. “Transit centers are pure CSU,” Söder said.

The Austrian government, which has repeatedly said it would match German steps to tighten border controls with its own measures on its southern borders, has yet to approve the proposal.

Austria's Foreign Minister, Karin Kneissel, has commented that the transit center proposal raises “a whole series of European legal and political questions.”


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