Monday 26 September 2016

Facing up honestly to our responsibility for refugees

Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeir

Published 17/10/2015 | 02:30

Migrants crossing the border at Zakany, Hungary
Migrants crossing the border at Zakany, Hungary
Vice-Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel Photo: Reuters

What are our obligations to those threatened by war and violence? What and how much can we cope with? When will we reach our uppermost limits? Each of these three questions is quite legitimate. But if the debate is restricted to the media soundbites "We can do it" and "The boat is full", then the refugee crisis threatens to tear our society apart. We need an honest discussion about our realistic scope for action.

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Honesty is about establishing certain truths.

Yes, the large majority of the people coming to us are fleeing wars and civil wars or their immediate neighbouring regions.

Yes, a large proportion of the refugees have come to us from the Western Balkans. These people have no chance of asylum, however, and must quickly return to their home countries.

Yes, despite the unprecedented willingness on the part of Germans to help and the incredible work done by the local authorities, we have to do what we can to rein in the number of people migrating to Germany. After all, we cannot take in and integrate more than a million refugees year after year.

Honesty is about admitting we cannot control the momentum of migration with the tools of German domestic policy alone, and certainly not without Europe. Even then, we will not be able to break this trend overnight.

Germany has acted.

The burden on the federal states and local authorities is being eased. With our asylum package, we have created domestic conditions to allow us to help, first and foremost, those who are genuinely in need of protection. In so doing, we are not waving goodbye to our rule-of-law culture with its constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.

However, it is also clear that we must work with perseverance and resolve on international and European solutions in particular to reduce the pressure on Germany.

To do this, we need to restore our conviction that national egoism is not the answer and that acting together benefits us all.

While the EU's decision to redistribute 120,000 refugees is welcome, it is not enough. We need a permanent European quota system. While we have functioning European institutions, they are not equipped to deal with the current influx of refugees. Frontex [EU border management agency] needs more staff to secure the EU's external borders and should be extended to become a European border protection authority.

Joint border controls with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean are overdue. The European Asylum Support Office already constitutes the embryo of a European asylum authority. We should take courageous steps towards integration also in this area.

We must help Greece and Italy to set up 'European arrival centres' where all refugees have to be systematically registered and then distributed fairly across the EU.

However, European solutions will only work if we can reach agreements with key countries in the European neighbourhood, especially Turkey.

The European Commission has proposed an action plan to this end, which we are flanking with a bilateral dialogue on migration.

We have to support the countries that are currently hosting the bulk of the refugees.

Along with Turkey, these are mainly Jordan and Lebanon. In New York, we were able to increase our support for international humanitarian aid organisations by $1.8bn.

Our most important and forward-looking foreign-policy task remains to tackle the refugee crisis at source.

This is why we are doing our utmost to achieve political solutions to the major crises and trouble spots of the Middle East and northern Africa.

This includes talks with Russia, which played a constructive role in the realisation of a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Steps must be taken to stop the state structures in Syria from imploding or exploding in their entirety, leading to even greater numbers of people seeking refuge here.

In all of our efforts, we must remember that we will only achieve understanding and trust by talking about our realistic scope for action.

That is why we need both confidence and realism.

Only with confidence will we be able to mobilise the political and social forces needed to seize the great opportunities posed by integrating these refugees.

And only with realism will we be able to put our humanitarian aims into practice.

Our policies will only be accepted in the long term if we do not overstretch the willingness to help shown by the people of our country.

And we will only achieve acceptance when people are not neglected in our country and when their entirely real needs and problems are taken seriously.

We are at a crossroads between a continent where barriers, fences and national egoisms once again divide us and a continent that manages to find joint responses with a European asylum policy and joint efforts to tackle the causes of flight - a continent that is honest and rises to this great challenge with a clear vision and without any illusions.

Sigmar Gabriel (is the German minister for economy, deputy chancellor) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier (is minister for foreign affairs) on the refugee crisis

Irish Independent

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