Analysis

Syrian Refugees in Germany Earn Rare Win but Remain on Borrowed Time

Germany has reinstated its policy of letting refugees from Syria and elsewhere bring over relatives, but pressure to send the migrants home is mounting

Syrian refugee families talk in the village Golzow, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Berlin, Germany, May 27, 2016
Markus Schreiber / AP

Syrian refugees in Germany have been told that as of this month, family members living in other countries can join them.

This is not an entirely new development: Germany approved reunification of all refugee families of a certain status back in 2016. However, it subsequently suspended the policy due to political pressure and public protest, which followed accusations that refugees had harmed Germans – the most egregious example being the mass sexual assaults during the 2015/2016 New Year celebrations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel realized quickly that a policy of taking in refugees and their families without restrictions could cost her and her party dearly, although when the Syrian civil war broke out, the Germans had seemed to want to help them. But concern arose that newcomers who brought over their families would settle down, and later it would be hard to get them to return home and/or to deny them citizenship.

To minimize opposition to its policy, Germany distinguishes between two types of refugees: political asylum seekers who are entitled to permanent residency; and people who fled because of a civil war, as in Syria, but cannot prove personal persecution, which is a precondition for political asylum.

The refugees’ delight at the restoration of the reunification policy has been marred, however, by the caveat that Germany will only accept up to a total of 1,000 family members a month. Parents may bring their children and children may bring their parents, but siblings cannot do so for each other.

So far around 34,000 family reunification requests have been submitted to German consulates around Europe; tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands more are expected. At a pace of 1,000 relatives a month, a large number of families will have to wait for many years.

Refugees already residing in Germany are facing mounting antagonism, reflected among other things in the refusal to rent them homes, expulsion from homes that they have already rented, difficulties in finding work, and hostility in the street and in shops.

One Syrian refugee told a reporter that he and his friends had tried to rent an apartment in a big housing project in Munich and were told the apartment was already leased, but then they asked German friends to apply to rent the same apartment – and they were answered in the affirmative. German law prohibits discrimination of tenants due to national origin, religion, sex or race, but it’s apparently easy enough to circumvent the law using perfectly legal excuses.

In Bavaria, refugees have to live in designated areas called “anchor centers,” where they wait up to 18 months for a decision on their status. Human rights activists who have visited these facilities report pervasive stress and fear among the refugees; nights when the police create a ruckus during raids aimed at catching and deporting "illegals"; brawls; a lack of privacy; and unexplained cuts in the government’s financial support for the refugees.

For its part, the police employ drones to locate refugees residing outside these centers; if caught they are brought back to them or deported. Bavaria’s interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said in an interview that refugees should file for asylum in the first country they reach. Nobody has the right to choose where to apply for that status, the minister said, adding that Germany’s goal is indeed to send the refugees back to the first country they reached.

Indeed, the European Union’s immigration regulations state that the status of a refugee will be determined by their first port of arrival. But hundreds of thousands of migrants who have reached Greece or Bulgaria via Turkey have kept moving – heading for countries where they thought they’d have a better future. They don’t want to live in impoverished countries or in an environment that they consider hostile. And the more refugees arrive in Germany from Syria, the more they realize that they’re not as welcome as they were when the civil war began in their country.

One recent night at 11 P.M., about 20 refugees suddenly showed up at the door of Christian Erntl, who lives in the Bavarian hamlet of Pfenningbach with a population of 300. They wanted to recharge their cellphones, or use the residents' phones, he recalled. They left things all over the place, on the streets and near the houses, and burned their identification documents so nobody could tell which country they reached first, he said.

Not all Germans are up in arms about the refugee situation. Some people host migrants who are slated to be deported in their houses, giving them financial assistance and helping them fill out their paperwork. Still, such occasional personal actions cannot compensate for an official policy designed to reduce the number of refugees, whether by making their lives more difficult or sending them by force back to their first port of arrival.

As for refugees in Germany and elsewhere who have come from Syria, the more the Assad regime advances in its quest to regain control of the country, the greater the pressure will be on those who fled to return home, and thus relieve the Continent from what is perceived as a terrible threat to its culture and to the peace of mind of its citizens.