Merkel and Migrants: A Critique

I think that Angela Merkel did a bad job of handling the refugee crisis of late 2015. In addition to its other failings, her approach seems to me to have been about the worst way possible to help Syrians in need of refuge from the ongoing war in their home country. My reasons for thinking these things is based on facts that still seem to be entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, and that do not seem to have made any impression on the narrative concerning these events. The result is that Merkel’s advocates continually make unchallenged claims that are false – and I blame these advocates for a move towards extremism on both sides of the political spectrum throughout the West. Time, then, for a blog post.

Let us begin with some facts. Having followed the issue in major news media, what proportion of applicants for asylum in Germany do you suppose have been Syrian since 2015? 94%? 90%? Or perhaps only 80%?

Taken month-by-month, Syrians have always made up less than 55% of initial asylum applicants in Germany. In fact, they have usually accounted for a still smaller proportion than this: taken year-by-year, Syrians have never made up as much as 37% of initial asylum applications in Germany.

In case you doubt me on this point (and in case I have misread the data), allow me to provide links to my source, which is Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). Be warned: these links will each download a PDF. In November 2015, there were 55,950 initial asylum applications in Germany, of which 30,398 (54.3%) were from Syrians (see page three). This was the high point. During the migration crisis of 2015-2016, the other relevant months were as follows: in August 2015 initial asylum applicants were 30.2% Syrian; in September 40.9%; in October 53.5%; in December 54.0%; in January 2016 53.7%; February 50.6%; and in March 47.8%.

For each individual year since 2015, the numbers are lower. Here (again) is the link for the data for December 2015. On page two there is an overview for the year. There we learn that in 2015 there were 441,899 initial applications for asylum in Germany. Of these, 158,657 (35.9%) were made by Syrians. In 2016 36.9% of initial asylum applications were made by Syrians. In 2017, 24.7%. In 2018 to the end of November, 27.2%.

As you review the data, you may be struck by an initial thought: this is not the story of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 as it was told in our major media. According to that story, the migrants during that crisis were overwhelmingly Syrian. Here’s an altogether typical sentence from the Atlantic in early 2016 (I was able to track it down because it stuck in my mind): “more than 1 million people entered Germany last year, the vast majority of them Syrian.” I remembered this sentence because it contains a use of “vast majority” with which I am unfamiliar: we have just seen that Syrians represented 35.9% of asylum applicants in the preceding year, with a high of 54.3% in one month. The information was available at the time (though I only knew about it because I was following the news in German).

There is a more important question than the narrative followed by our media concerning the refugee crisis. The facts about the makeup of asylum claims in Germany seem to me to be heavily laden with consequences for our thinking about the policy followed by the German government. First of all, Germany does not have infinite resources. Every bed that is filled by, say, a migrant from Serbia or Algeria must be unavailable to a refugee from Syria. Every meal consumed, every euro spent, every minute of a volunteer’s or bureaucrat’s time expended on a non-Syrian migrant cannot be given to a Syrian refugee. If our goal is to help Syrians as they flee their country’s civil war, we must find a way to help Syrians preferentially, to bring Syrians in at the expense of other possible migrants. As the numbers show, the Merkel approach – i.e., a general opening of the borders – is a very poor way to achieve this. Having read about the appalling conditions that obtained for some months in many German refugee shelters, which were utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving, or about great battles that broke out within certain shelters between people of different national origin/religion/etc., requiring intervention by the police on a significant scale – as I think about this sort of thing, it seems to me it would have been more compassionate to Syrians to allow them in, and to keep many others out.

And look at the matter from another angle: in 2015, four Balkan countries – Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia – accounted for fully one-quarter (113,015 or 25.6%) of all initial asylum applicants in Germany. What war were they fleeing? Were they really as deserving of German resources as Syrians were? A look at the data (page 7 of the December 2015 PDF linked above) shows that 35,235 decisions were made by the German government on asylum applications from Albanians in 2015, of which seven (7) were recognised as refugees. It seems to me that it would have been more compassionate to Syrian refugees to avoid making them wait while the bureaucracy spent its time rejecting 30,000 or so applications from Albanians, who never had much chance of being accepted anyway. (In 2015 there were also 26,801 decisions made on Kosovan applications, of whom thirteen (13) were deemed refugees, 14,451 decisions on Serbian applications, of whom four (4) were refugees, etc.)

There is a way to reduce such inefficiencies to a very considerable degree: borders. Controlled borders allow us to keep some people out while letting other people in. In this case, by keeping control of her borders, Germany could have allowed far more Syrian refugees in, and would have been able to offer each of them greater resources, and thus better treatment, while keeping other, less deserving people, out.

Nor is this the only advantage offered by controlled borders. It is no secret that the great majority of those who arrived during the great migration of 2015-2016 were young men. This is, of course, because young men are most able to endure the rigours of travel required to reach Germany on foot. But consider what this involves: Merkel’s policy produced a situation in which the strongest people, those least in need of help, were given aid, while the weakest were left to themselves. Women, children, the sick, the injured – these were the people least able to make the journey to Germany, and Merkel’s approach tended to do little or nothing for such people. Surely a better approach would have directed aid to those most in need of it, rather than to the strongest (and also the richest: the trip to Europe seems usually to have cost thousands of dollars per person). This could have been achieved by transporting people directly from refugee camps around Syria, which could only have been thinkable if the borders were under control.

So here is an initial point: if all you care about in this whole situation is helping Syrians, Angela Merkel’s policy was quite a bad way to achieve this. In fact, if you begin from the premise that we ought to help Syrians during their country’s civil war, I have a hard time thinking of a worse way to accomplish this aim than the path Merkel took.

A second point concerns the quality of the coverage and commentary provided by our media. For me it is a matter of concern not only that the facts listed above seem to be known almost nowhere in the English-speaking world, but still more that I have never read in English an elementary critique of Merkel’s policy of the sort I just gave in the preceding five paragraphs. Instead, coverage and commentary followed a straightforward narrative: Angela Merkel was a Great Humanitarian trying to help Syrians. I can remember almost no attempt to distinguish genuine refugees from economic migrants (here is a rare exception from Nick Cohen). On the contrary, all those trying to migrate into Germany or Europe were described as ‘refugees’ and were assumed to be mostly Syrian (for good measure, the pictures used tended to be of mothers carrying small children, an image generally at odds with the reality of a migration consisting mostly of young men). We have seen, however, that the arrivals were rarely even as much as 50% Syrian, and this suggests a criticism of Merkel’s policy that I haven’t yet mentioned: why does a civil war in Syria require that Germans allow into their country tens of thousands of young men from Egypt or Pakistan? (or Algeria, or Eritrea, etc.) For it is this that is effectively being asserted by anyone who justifies Merkel’s open-border policy on the basis of the civil war in Syria – and it was just that justification that I encountered again and again on TV and in the papers.

Having criticised Angela Merkel, I want to draw attention to what I think is a mitigating consideration – although the facts here do suggest that she was not a visionary humanitarian pursuing a deliberate policy towards refugees, but instead stumbled unwittingly into that characterisation. Robin Alexander, in his book Die Getriebenen, provides a day-by-day, and sometimes minute-by-minute, look at the actions of the major players in German politics during the six or so months of the Flüchtlingskrise (“refugee crisis”) of late 2015 and early 2016. There are a number of things in the book that might interest English-speaking readers, but I will confine myself to one central incident. Late on September 4th, 2015, Angela Merkel made the decision to open Germany’s borders to a large group of migrants who were effectively stranded in Budapest, having been held back by the Hungarian government. In itself, this decision seems to me to have been humane, and the right thing to do – or rather, would have been, if it had been restricted to a very few days, an emergency exception to the rules of the sort an executive can reasonably make on occasion. The problem is that the border remained open, and this initial group of migrants soon became a vast and continuous flow. Watching events unfold at the time, I can remember reading that after a few days, the German government announced that the border would presently be closed. As Alexander tells it, the order was drawn up for this to happen at 6pm on September 13th, and the German police had the men and materials in place to carry it out, having even brought officers down from the north of the country for the purpose.

And yet… the order was never actually given. Alexander describes the meeting in which the crucial decision to close the border, which has already been taken, is untaken. Civil servants begin to come up with legalistic obstacles to closing the border. Certainly German law allows the government to turn away asylum applicants at the border, but what about the European rules? Is the Dublin Regulation still in effect? Has it not been temporarily suspended by the Chancellor nine days ago? In the meantime, a minister is making repeated calls to the Chancellor’s office, and the Chancellor is now proving indecisive. What would happen, she asks, if hundreds of migrants were to charge police lines at the border with children under their arms? What about the pictures that would result? Soon she gives the impression that she will give the order if Sigmar Gabriel, leader of Germany’s  second-largest party, will provide clear support for it. In fact, he has already agreed earlier in the day, but in the meantime, he has been made aware of concerns from his party about the legality of turning people away at the border. In the end, nobody takes responsibility for the difficult decision; the order to turn people away receives a change of wording that keeps Germany’s borders open for all who claim asylum. The result is that what was meant to be a brief opening of the borders, lasting a few days, lasts instead for six months (to March 9th, 2016). Thus Germany stumbles towards a new position as a humanitarian superpower less as a matter of deliberate decision than through a sort of deliberative incapacity.

I have described the crucial meeting at length because the extreme indecisiveness displayed in it seems to me to point to an underlying cultural reality. It was as though the decision to close the borders was a white-hot fire that nobody wanted to approach too closely. Repeatedly, at the crucial moment, those in the highest positions of responsibility shied away from responsibility, and as a result, a decision that had effectively been taken already was not taken at all. What explains this strange paralysis? Here I am inclined to see the weight of German history. The ghosts of the 20th century still loomed large. Of all the governments on earth, none would find it so difficult to close their country to people allegedly in need, to confront the resulting accusations of a heartlessness towards refugees, or even of xenophobia, as the German. I think Angela Merkel failed an important test of leadership on this occasion, but we do find here some reason to view her failings in a more forgiving light. I am inclined to view those who greeted the resulting mess with rapturous applause in a less forgiving manner, particularly those outside of Germany.

Of course there are plenty of good reasons for a country to maintain control of its borders and its immigration policy; I will not rehearse these here, with one exception: the effect that Merkel’s policy seems to me have had in creating a more extreme political environment throughout the West. I proceed now in a somewhat more speculative manner than above; still, if my thoughts below are even partly correct, they should concern even those who are otherwise inclined to lean toward openness and higher immigration.

The right and the left both have a somewhat irrational tendency to think that those who oppose them represent something more extreme than is in fact the case. So, for example, the left has a tendency to see bigotry and hatred in those on the other side even when it’s not there (which is not to deny that sometimes the left really is opposing true bigotry and hatred). One of the fears on the right, on the other hand, is that their opponents on immigration don’t just want a somewhat more open future, but rather want to abolish borders entirely and bring in an unlimited number of migrants. I once would have considered this fear unfounded, but Merkel and her cheerleaders proved it well-founded indeed. Her policy (if ‘policy’ is the word for a course one stumbles into as described above) was an extreme one, and to such a degree that it is almost a logical extreme: for six months, anyone from a poor country arriving on foot would be allowed into Germany, no questions asked. For such people there would simply be no borders. There would be no limit on the number of arrivals (Merkel was quite explicit about this). This policy could only really have been more extreme by a further extension in time. Here, then, was a major country acting out the absolute worst possible fear of immigration skeptics – and being cheered on by a very large section of the press indeed, as well as many celebrities and politicians. I’m inclined to think that this had an effect.

Imagine you’re someone who has concerns about mass immigration. You’re not necessarily against immigration per se, but you’re worried about the quantity of migrants your country is taking in, as well as the possible difficulties arising from cultural differences. The message Merkel and her supporters effectively sent was, “we don’t care at all about your concerns. We will ignore you as absolutely as we possibly can. Your views will not be represented in any way, shape or form in our policy – and further, we will frame the conversation [inaccurately, as we saw above] so as to represent your concerns as a heartless disregard for people in need.” What effect do you suppose a message along these lines might have?

In Germany, in the summer of 2015, the Alternative für Deutschland party seemed all but dead. If I recall correctly, it even had financial difficulties. Today it is the third largest party federally (polls sometimes put it in second place), with significant influence in a number of state legislatures as well. This is not the place to talk at length about the AfD; I will say only that it seems to be made up to a large degree of people I would not want to see play a major role in government, and that I don’t think it would be anywhere near as popular as it is if Merkel had pursued a more moderate course in 2015.

But I don’t think Merkel’s influence was confined to Germany. Many British voters, as they considered the Brexit referendum, will have been all too aware that such trifles as international treaties and German law had proved utterly incapable of inhibiting the unilateral action of the German state, which had invited vast numbers of people into Europe, all of whom would, in time, be able to move to Britain (i.e., once they had gotten German citizenship). Immigration, of course, was a matter of real concern in the years leading up to the campaign. “Take Back Control” said the campaign slogan, and Merkel’s policy had created the conditions within which such a slogan would have maximum impact.

In similar fashion, I wonder if Obama’s wholehearted and very public support for Merkel did not have an effect on people who soon found themselves considering whether they should cast a vote to make Donald Trump president. Certainly immigration was a significant issue in that campaign, and though the case of Angela Merkel did not break the surface, it surely provided the background music, framing the issue in many minds, and also framing the advocates of a more open immigration policy in those same minds. And something similar is surely the case across Europe, which has seen a surge of support for parties similar to the AfD since 2015, as well as an erosion of support for more mainstream parties. If you seek her monument, look around you.

In many ways I regard this surge as lamentable (I voted for Clinton in 2016), but I have to admit there is a certain logic to it. I now look at 2015 as a moment of fundamental change in political life throughout the West, for it made clear that a profound shift of the Overton window had taken place among a crucially important section of the populace, the intellectual elites. The need to maintain control over a country’s borders had long been accepted as self-evident by all, but now this view faded away among a very large proportion of those in charge of political parties, major media and the conversation in academia. The new view was one of limitless indulgence towards illegal immigrants, and some even moved towards the claim that all immigration was good, period. (A sign of the change is the jarring feel of those videos of Clinton in the 90’s, or Obama a decade ago, speaking in vehement terms about the need to crack down on illegal immigrants – sorry, I believe ‘undocumented’ is the new term.) Those who still held to the old consensus found themselves with no respectable place to register that view, and at the same time found themselves now cast as bigots. I am inclined to view the change as a major driver in the populist surge in much of the West in the past two years – but note that on my account it is the elites who have changed more than the populace.

Finally, lest I be accused of pointing only to problems, and not at all to solutions, allow me to note the approach of the British government. This put quite considerable sums of money into supporting those who had found accommodation in one of the countries bordering Syria, and also flew a limited number to Britain. The British approach did not favour the strong and the rich, but rather those who were deemed most worthy of aid. It did not bring hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing whatever to do with the Syrian war into Britain. It did not unilaterally undo the Dublin Regulation, nor did it attempt to force upon other European countries a new migration policy, or any quantity of refugees. It did not involve the conflation of economic migrants with actual refugees. It did not confirm the worst fears of reasonable immigration skeptics. It did not provide any opportunity for sentimental posturing on the part of those who wish to show what good and compassionate people they are; it focused instead on the matter of actually providing aid. Sober, deliberate, quiet, unpretentious, the British approach was simply superior to the German.