Refugee camps on the Greek islands are full well beyond capacity | Photo: picture-alliance/ANE
Refugee camps on the Greek islands are full well beyond capacity | Photo: picture-alliance/ANE

Several German federal states have offered to take in refugees and migrants currently stuck in Greek Island camps. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer however has blocked their efforts, arguing for a unified solution on the federal level as well as across the European Union. His critics accuse the minister of sending mixed messages.

The situation at migrant camps in Greece is becoming unmanageable in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities like the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos — which originally were designed to house up to 3,000 migrants and refugees — are bursting at the seams running at five to six times that capacity.

While the Greek government is trying to help alleviate the situation by moving them onto mainland Greece, new arrivals on the islands from Turkey continue to keep the migrant population high. This is proving to be impossible for the Greek government to keep up.

Meanwhile, neighboring Turkey has been refusing to take back any rejected asylum seekers from Greece, as stipulated in the EU-Turkey pact from 2016. 

Read more: Turkey's Erdogan vows to keep border open for migrants until EU meets demands

‘Europe has to assume responsibility’

As a sign of solidarity, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, Armin Laschet, recently paid a visit to a number of camps to get an idea of the severity of the situation. Laschet, who also is in the running to become German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor as party leader and candidate for chancellor in German elections next year, said during his visit that “Europe has to assume responsibility for this task.”

However, in the same breath, Laschet highlighted that he wouldn’t want to wait for a coordinated, pan-European response to the crisis situation. That’s why the NRW premier has offered to take in people from Greek camps who might be particularly vulnerable — but only as part of a concerted effort by the federal government in Berlin.

Read more: Number of migrant arrivals from Turkey declining sharplyNRW Premier Laschet seen here at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos wants to help migrants - but only as part of a coordinated effort  Photo picture-alliancedpaD HlsmeierSeehofer’s uphill battle

Other states in Germany meanwhile have floated the idea of launching their own reception programs in response to the situation on the Greek isles. The federal state of Thuringia and the city state of Berlin have volunteered to take in at least a few hundred migrants — much to the dismay of German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who believes that immigration matters should be run as coordinated efforts throughout the country.

So far, Seehofer has succeeded in thwarting the plans of Thuringia and Berlin, mainly by arguing that only a coordinated response at EU level could begin to address the problem situation.

Read more: Berlin passes decree to take in 300 refugees from Greece

“No country in the world is able to deal with migration alone. That’s why it is that much more important that we finally start making some headway with Europe’s asylum policies. We’ve started on a good course, and I for one am not willing to jeopardize that,” Seehofer said, adding that he was not one for going it alone.

Read more: Close to 100,000 asylum applications still pending in GreeceHorst Seehofer wants to see more restriction in Germanys migration policy - and more European assistance  Photo picture-alliancedpaM SchuttMixed messages?

Seehofer wants to standardize the legal basis for the reception of refugees and migrants throughout Germany. In the past, there have been both federal and state-level programs that were partially based on different legal frameworks for the same groups of immigrants. This resulted in discrepancies such as diverging standards across Germany when it comes to the duration of residence permits, the right to family reunification or access to health services. 

Various studies later found that migrants who had come to the country through state-level reception programs were generally worse off than those for whom the federal government assumed responsibility. However, those observations were based on programs run in 2015 and 2016 at the height of the so-called “refugee crisis,” predating Seehofer’s tenure as interior minister.

Currently, Germany participates in an EU agreement to relocate around 1,600 unaccompanied minors and their relatives from the Greek Islands. The first groups of children were transferred in April and July. Overall, Germany plans to take in around 920 migrants. These relocations are coordinated by the federal government which distributes the migrants among the states.

Seehofer has said he wants to avoid solo efforts by the federal states -- but the minister is also known to have made exceptions: he green-lit state initiatives to bring Yazidi refugees from Iraq, who were being persecuted by the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) terrorist organization. He also helped Syrians particularly hit by the civil war receive support from various German states, including fast-tracking their asylum applications. In both instances, however, the refugees were relocated from their home countries as opposed to another EU country, and the relocation was mostly coordinated along with the UNHCR.

Seehofer’s erstwhile willingness to approve state-run programs is seen by his critics as a contradiction to his present rhetoric and is causing confusion with the German states that want to be more engaged in supporting migrants.

Read more: 'EU wants migrants to drown', says German captain Carola RacketeA unified European response to migration remains an elusive goal  Photo ReutersA KonstantinidisAn EU-wide solution

Interior Minister Seehofer has also expressed concern that efforts by individual German states could be counter-productive to achieving a unified front in EU-wide asylum policies. Germany, which has taken on a leadership role across the EU since the arrival of over 1 million migrants and refugees in 2015 and 2016, should at least present a cohesive message as a country, Seehofer warned.

And with Germany now being in charge of the EU Council Presidency, the federal government has set the goal of making leeway in reforming and standardizing EU asylum policy — despite stark opposition to this from certain EU nations. Countries in Eastern Europe appear to be particularly opposed to the idea of accepting a standardized redistribution of migrants across EU states, while Mediterranean nations such as Italy, Greece and Malta, who have had to bear the brunt of irregular migration, remain in favor of finding such a unified solution.

In his bid to strike any kind of compromise between such extremes, Seehofer regards any kind of disagreement at home as his achilles’ heel. But numerous civilian groups, church organizations, and left-leaning political movements have already voiced their opposition to Seehofer’s position. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller has called Seehofer's rejection of state-run efforts "scandalous". 

But be that as it may, the power to implement German asylum policy as it stands, remains on his side.

Author: Christoph Hasselbach

First published in German: August 11, 2020

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Ed. note: Original wording has been amended by InfoMigrants

Adapted by: Sertan Sanderson


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