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Fencing the Gates

Is Merkel to be blamed or saluted over the migrant crisis in Europe?

Jack George

Naked Politics Blogger

Last week, migrants burst through the gates at the Greek border with Macedonia, seen as the next step on the long route to Germany, where those seeking to claim asylum expect to be welcomed. The literal break-though seems to have taken place after earlier footage showing tears gas and stun grenades being used against stone-hurling migrants. But why is there this desperation to get to Germany? European refugee law, codified by Dublin convention, asserts that refugees elsewhere should claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they reach.

But this has been ignored since the summer. The question of who exactly is responsible for the refugees therefore is tragically beyond the scope of the EU. Instead, countries along the migrant both from within and out of the EU have decided to close their borders, which the German leader, Angela Merkel has decried.

Chancellor Merkel has more or less said that her country has an open door policy when it comes to refugees. In itself, that is a perfectly ethical position—a prosperous country explicitly saying it is there to help those who need assistance.

But by being so good, it could appear to some, that it is in fact the gates of hell that Merkel has flung open. With over a million new inhabitants in a year, Europe’s largest country was bound to have some difficulty adjusting. But the partly-migrant instigated mass sexual assaults on New Year’s eve, the 120,000 migrants who have slipped off the record and the rekindling of far-right sentiment—heard most disturbingly through the cheers that took place while a refugee hostel burnt down—leave a far worse than bittersweet taste.

It may have been different if every other country in Europe had also offered to take a considerable share of migrants, thereby lessening the social and logistical burden on Germany. But they didn’t. In a spate of candid political opportunism, all roads seem to now lead to Germany (and Sweden—which now has a gender-balance more male than China’s as a result of its ingestion of young male migrants). In effect, Merkel and Germany are being punished for being good. Because she was the first to make a big statement of welcome, no other country really felt that they had to.

Another problem with the Merkel brand of refugee admittance is that it promotes a survival of the fittest mentality. By accepting rather than seeking out and resettling migrants, those who arrive are those refugees who are the richest, the strongest, the most connected, not necessarily those most in need. And when generosity reaches its inevitable limit, it will be those most in need, who will still be left behind. It is extremely unclear that the ‘let them in’ attitude to refugee resettlement is the most moral. There are millions of displaced people who simply cannot reach Germany. Oddly, all this means that despite the relatively small number of Syrian refugees taken in by the UK government over the last few years, their method may be more ethical (they facilitate resettlement routes instead of waiting for people—who have had to risk their lives—to arrive).

Further, the incentive provided by the open arms of Merkel may be in part to blame for the continuous deaths at sea. Would refugees and migrants alike keep risking such a trying and dangerous route, if there was absolutely no chance they’d be resettled? This is an unpleasant counterfactual, but one that might stimulate better policy-making. There needs to be EU-wide agreement on refugee resettlement, so that countries are not punished for being moral. There needs to be large-scale resettlement initiatives that do not validate the payment of smugglers and the risking of people’s lives. It is worth noting that the recent provisional deal between Turkey and the EU seems to achieve neither of these things.

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