The refugee debate: just how ‘open’ are Germany’s borders?

Author thumbnail
Jörg Luyken - [email protected]
The refugee debate: just how ‘open’ are Germany’s borders?
Photo: DPA

In the current government crisis over migration policy the term “open borders” is thrown about all the time. Anyone who drives to Austria though, knows that there is no physical border there - so what is the debate really about?


Should Germany have open borders or not? Should Merkel have opened Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015? These are questions which have often been asked over the past three years due to the large numbers of migrants who have arrived unhindered in the country.

But these questions can be somewhat confusing given the fact that there have not been controls at Germany’s land borders since 1995 when the Schengen agreement came into force.

The Schengen deal, which now includes 26 European countries, did away with permanent border posts. If you drive from Spain to Poland, for example, you will cross several borders but never actually have to stop and show your passport.

How could Merkel open a border that only exists in name?

The fact that Schengen borders only exist on paper leads to a sense of dissonance when one reads the oft repeated claim that Merkel "opened" Germany's borders to refugees in 2015. How could she have opened the borders for people if no hard border actually exists?

ARD journalist Kolja Schwartz writes that the formulation that Merkel opened the borders is “fundamentally wrong since there hadn’t been closed borders in the Schengen area for years. Therefore no border could be opened in 2015.”

Konstantin von Notz, deputy leader of the Green party in the Bundestag (German parliament), has called it “the most pervasive myth of our times.”

Some in Germany argue that the phrase has been deliberately promoted by the far-right to exaggerate Merkel's "culpability" for the refugee arrivals.
But this is to ignore a crucial change in policy which was initiated in the summer of 2015.
In August of that year the Chancellor decided to stop applying the EU’s so-called Dublin rules for newly arrived refugees.
The rules stipulate that an asylum seeker has to apply for protection in the EU country in which they first arrive. If they arrive in another EU state, that state can send them back to the country they first arrived in.
But, as Greece buckled under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of arrivals over the sea border to Turkey, Merkel temporarily lifted this legal barrier to freedom of movement within the EU.
For this reason, experts such as Die Welt journalist Robin Alexander, who wrote a best-selling book on the refugee crisis, argue that Merkel did indeed open the borders, even if these were never physically closed.
Photo: DPA

Are Germany’s borders now closed?

Germany decided to start re-applying the Dublin rules for refugees who arrived from Greece in March 2016, effectively meaning that its application of EU law returned to normal.

That did not mean though that from that point onward all asylum seekers registered in other EU countries could be turned back at the border.

In fact this is what the current conflict inside the German government is all about. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wants to give border police the power to turn back asylum seekers before they enter the country. Merkel says they should be let into Germany while authorities establish where they first entered the EU.

By mid-June of this year, 18,349 asylum seekers had been admitted to Germany who were already entered in the European fingerprint file Eurodac and thus registered in another EU country.

But it is not just those who have arrived elsewhere in Europe who are currently allowed to cross the border. Even people who have previously been handed an entry ban by German immigration authorities can still re-enter the country.

That isn't always the case though. Jörg Radek from the German Police Union GdP told DPA that people with entry bans have to fill out a form at the border. If the form indicates that they have a new reason to claim asylum, then they are allowed to cross into the country. If police decide that there is no new reason to let them in, then they can turn them away.

Another reason why police turn people back at the border is if they have no intention of applying for asylum in Germany. For instance, if they tell police that they are on their way to Sweden to apply for protection, then they won't be allowed in.

All in all, some 7,500 people were turned away at German borders last year.


So what would 'closing' the border mean?

Seehofer, who has been Interior Minister since March, claims he only recently found out that people who have been banned from entering the country can still come back, something he describes as “a scandal.”

On Monday, the Bavarian politician announced that people who have previously been handed an entry ban will no longer be allowed to enter the country, effective immediately.

He has also handed Merkel an ultimatum: either she finds an “equivalent” solution at the European level in the next two weeks, or he will instruct border police to start turning away asylum seekers who are already registered elsewhere.

Seehofer's stated intention is to ensure that fewer migrants arrive in Germany. He clearly believes that stopping people at the border would have this effect - since the large majority of refugees have to travel through another EU country before they reach Germany.

But it’s not that simple.

There are moral issues to consider. Günther Burkhardt, head of refugee organization Pro Asyl, says that turning people away at the border could spark a "chain reaction of rejections" in Europe. This could deter war refugees from seeking protection in the EU - and mean the EU was no longer living up to its duties under international law.

There are also possible unintended consequences of closing the border. If countries of transit fear that they will have to take back registered migrants, they have an incentive not to collect personal data in the first place. Indeed, Germany has long accused Italy of waving through migrants. Asylum seekers themselves may also do more to evade being registered when they first enter the EU.

READ ALSO: Germany and Austria start joint police work to combat illegal migration

Securing the borders would also come at a considerable cost. The chairman of the Federal Police Union, Ernst Walter, warns that "if you strengthen controls at the Bavarian borders, you have to do the same at other German borders so that people don't enter elsewhere.”

He explains that there are currently controls at three autobahns to Austria and some sporadic searches across the countryside, but that’s it. A determined policy of turning back asylum seekers would only be possible if the government employs several hundred more police officers, the police union warns.

With DPA


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also