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“We Are All on Guard”

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State Secretary EMILY HABER, a high-flying career diplomat, switched to Germany’s Ministry of the Interior in 2014 to take charge of homeland security and migration. When an unprecedented number of refugees started arriving last summer, she had to organize the country’s response. In a rare look behind the scenes, she explains the German government’s policies to come to grips with the refugee crisis.

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© REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Last year Germany had to cope with the arrival of an estimated 1 million refugees and migrants. What is the state of play since the recent EU-Turkey agreement? The EU-Turkey agreement had three main objectives. First, we wanted to reduce the numbers – not least because the eastern Mediterranean had turned into one of the most dangerous refugee routes. Second, we wanted to replace the hazardous route by legal routes. Third, we wanted to improve the situation for refugees in Turkey.

What have we achieved so far? The numbers of refugees coming to Greece are low now. Since April 4, an average of 70 refugees per day have been arriving on the Greek islands, compared to four-digit numbers in the months before. Why have the numbers dropped? Because people have taken our messaging seriously now. They believe we mean what we say.

The very high numbers of last summer and fall were the result of people feeling it was their last chance to reach Europe. Ever since Hungary started building its fence, people thought: “This will not go on forever. They will close the borders.”  People were afraid of missing the boat, figuratively speaking, even though it wasn’t leaving.

You said people are taking your messaging seriously now. What are you telling them? Our message is: “Don’t take this route. You’ll be returned. And you forfeit your chance to come by a legal route.” They take that seriously. Fewer people are coming to Turkey. Word has spread that the Aegean route is not the way to go anymore. And we’re not seeing Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans going to Egypt or Libya to take the central Mediterranean route instead. It is basically only Africans that take the central route.

The second point is the opening up of more legal routes, which hasn’t really got going because the legal proceedings on the Greek islands haven’t yielded final decisions yet – they are starting to come only now, and slowly. The EU-Turkey resettlement mechanism can only start once the asylum proceedings have been concluded and people are returned to Turkey who have been denied asylum. This in turn will trigger the resettlement process with Turkey. (Under the terms of the EU-Turkey agreement, in exchange for every Syrian being sent back to Turkey, the EU will accept a Syrian refugee presently living in a camp in Turkey. Once irregular crossings are ending, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated. Eds.) We have resettled people in the past. It’s an onerous process because the administrative procedures, which include Turkish authorities and the UNHCR, are not very swift and effective. But I’m convinced that it will work.

As far as the third objective – improving conditions for refugees and migrants in Turkey – is concerned: Turkey has promised to grant the right to seek asylum not only to Syrians but to all other refugees and migrants. This hasn’t existed before because Ankara isn’t party to the relevant protocol of the Geneva Conventions. I would call that an improvement – for migrants, Turkey, and Europe.

Hasn’t Turkey’s help been bought dearly? And did Ankara really help that much? Yes, it did help. And isn’t criticism of the agreement leveled against other dossiers and areas of policy rather than the treatment of refugees? If so, I would ask you, “In what way do these other areas of policy affect the improvements for refugees and for routes?”

Well, that is the big question. Critics ask if the EU hasn’t sold out to a country on the path to autocracy. What’s your response? That’s unjust criticism – we haven’t sold out, we reached an agreement. I would turn the question around and ask: “Are you against improving the situation of refugees? Are you against providing legal routes? Are you against ensuring there will be no more people dying on the eastern Aegean route?”

How are you monitoring the situation on the ground? Is there a EU presence? The UNHCR is in charge of organizing the resettlement process and providing material help. The UNHCR is very strong in Turkey. Also, there are numerous NGOs. And we have set up a European structure in Turkey that will oversee and monitor implementation of the agreement. It’s an operation that will grow, led by the EU support group in Turkey.

If we look at who’s been arriving, we’re also talking about people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan Africa. We are surrounded by countries in different states of fragility. In what way are we prepared for that? The biggest potential for migrants arriving is now via the central Mediterranean route. There’s huge migration potential from Africa. Most of the people who choose the central Mediterranean route come from sub-Saharan Africa. But I don’t foresee the soaring numbers we saw last year in the Aegean. They were so high because it was easy to take the Aegean route — and both Turkey and Greece did little to prevent this. The central Mediterranean route is much more hazardous and more expensive. In the first three months of 2016, we saw considerable increases compared with last year, when some 10,000 people came from January through March. This year it was 19,000 in the same period. And in April, the numbers nearly halved, to around 9,000. In April 2015 16,000 had arrived. In short: there is potential, but the opportunities are more limited. Also, most people coming via that route are not refugees, they are migrants.

Would a European immigration law also help? The continent needs migration, but perhaps in a more structured, organized way. Exactly. We need migration, but we want to steer and manage it ourselves. I am not talking about refugees here – they are entitled to protection, there is no room for discretionary power. With regard to migration, there is; and we should use it and decide for ourselves what migration we want. If you’re asking if it wouldn’t be right to offer more legal routes, my answer would be yes.

I think we have to do much better migration marketing. It’s quite easy to come to Germany if you have a university degree. You can either indicate that you already have a job or apply for a visa to look for one. That’s easy, but few people know about it.

How do you see the chances of saving the Schengen regime of passport-free travel while protecting Europe’s external borders? Schengen was based on the assumption that the EU’s external borders would be protected. And the system imploded when the external Schengen countries didn’t protect their border sufficiently anymore.

They didn’t receive much help from countries like Germany. I don’t agree, we did help them through European structures like Frontex. The “Dublin system” places responsibility for handling asylum cases with the first country of entry. This was intended as an incentive for securing the EU’s external borders. Few people remember this today. In hindsight it may seem unfair to place all of the responsibility on Italy or Greece. But we accepted open borders because these countries were supposed to protect their external borders. Now that the Schengen system is being challenged, other European countries need to take greater responsibility. But I can tell you that the countries with external borders get quite impassioned when it comes to accepting outside involvement in border issues.

The common asylum system was put in place under the assumption that we would have comparable procedures and benefits in the different EU member states – none of which emerged. On the contrary, we have seen a race to the bottom in a number of European countries that wanted to make sure that by offering insufficient conditions, they wouldn’t receive many of the arriving refugees.

As with Schengen, we renounced national autonomy of action based on the expectation that convergence would follow. Now if that’s not the case, what’s the conclusion? We’ll have to secure greater European responsibility.

Germany alone has housed an estimated 1 million newcomers. How did you manage? What kind of infrastructure was put in place? Until last summer, we had several thousand migrants per week, arriving mostly from the western Balkan countries. That was manageable because we knew it would be comparatively easy to return them. Then the composition of the influx changed entirely – and exploded by August 2015. At one point we had 12,000 people arriving every day. Because the German federal states were no longer able to organize their transportation and distribution, the federal government took over.

This worked out quite well. We had teleconferences twice a day with our colleagues on the state level. We organized beds, rooms, and institutions that would take in refugees. We organized buses and trains. It worked out because everyone worked hand in glove, with non-state actors also assuming a huge role. It produced a shared sense of solidarity – that we were in this together. I initially expected the states to be pitted against the federal government, but it didn’t happen.

Were the events of New Year’s Eve — the mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne — a game-changer? They didn’t alter the sense of solidarity, but they highlighted how big the task is. After all, we are welcoming very heterogeneous sets of people from very different countries with very different experiences and views on the role of state, of women, of values and other religions. Many of them are traumatized. We have the huge task of providing shelter, education, access to the labor market, and language skills. But making them want to be part of our society and embrace our democracy will be the most important task.

Could you outline your approach? Obviously, people who seek protection in Germany will have to learn German and start working as fast as possible; these are key to integration. We’ll have to make sure they can go to school and get equal opportunities.
But what I find most important is to make them part of our society and immunize them against “identity politics” used by those that use alienation as a political weapon. For instance, Salafists approach many of the refugees telling them that being different is their identity, that they shouldn’t accept democracy, tolerance, and respect for women or other religions.

Some politicians fuel it. Yes, some do. And I think that’s dangerous because certain segments of society may radicalize and turn out to be a high risk factor.

The so-called Islamic State has tried to turn Europe against refugees: Europeans are supposed to have terrorists in mind when they think of refugees. Precisely. This was clearly their intention when they sent two future Paris suicide bombers, who took part in the attacks of November 13, on the Aegean route. You see, IS didn’t need to send in terrorists. They have a reservoir of radical Islamist personnel in France, Belgium, and Germany, too. And what’s interesting: the two suicide bombers who came in with the refugees were accompanied by others. They were equipped with forged passports from the same source. And they arrived on one of the smallest Greek islands, where they got themselves registered. At the time, no one wanted to get registered, but they did so again in Serbia, then in Croatia. The message IS wanted to send was: We can do it. It was supposed to instill fear of, and mistrust against, those in search of shelter and protection.

How do you communicate to refugees that they are welcome here while rightwing populists, like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), say exactly the opposite? Not doing so risks antagonizing many, with dangerous polarization as a result. Up to 70 percent of the newcomers are Sunni Muslims. By now, about 40 percent are under 18. If you approach them by saying they don’t belong and never will, then I think there is a considerable danger they might turn to those who profess to guide them – against the political pillars and values of democratic society. I believe that integration is a two-way street. Both the newcomers and also the receiving society will have to change. At the same time, we have to stand for what we believe is important and what we cannot renounce.

We have witnessed Willkommenskultur in the sense of an immense number of people working in shelters for weeks on end, helping refugees, inviting them to their homes. Has it changed German society? It was incredible, something to be truly proud of. But it is only part of the picture. The other part of the picture are attacks on asylum shelters and asylum seekers. In 2015 we counted over 1,000 incidents; the year before it was about 200. We see the emergence of right wing terrorist action. At the same time the boundaries between the rightwing fringe and mainstream conservatism are getting blurred.

Have you left crisis mode? We are all on guard.