Merkel's loss of control

1,069 words - a four minute read

Dear reader,

Today we look back at a seismic event that took place five years ago: early September 2015 was the beginning of the refugee crisis. During the following four years 1.6 million refugees sought asylum in Germany. It was a watershed moment in German history.


Jörg & Axel

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Merkel’s loss of control

Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the borders for refugees was the pivotal moment of her chancellorship. For supporters, her response was the humanitarian act of the century. To detractors, it was a reckless move resulting in irreparable damage to the nation. 

Looking back now though, it is far from clear that Merkel ever wanted such a radical policy.

In 2015, the Syrian civil war had been raging for four years, yet the European Union was dragging its feet on finding a common solution to the growing refugee problem. In the spring, the conflict escalated dramatically when Russia entered the war. The number of Syrians fleeing started to become unmanageable for an ill-prepared Europe. 

Two key German decisions from the summer of 2015 stand out as pivotal to the crisis. Both were made without a clear plan or full regard for the consequences. 

The first was the following tweet:

The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees confirmed what the Interior Ministry had quietly been doing for weeks. Or rather not been doing. Syrians were no longer being sent back to the country where they had first entered the European Union, as the Dublin Regulation gave Germany legal right to do. After the media caught wind of the change in policy and ever more requests for clarification were made - the agency was forced to confirm it.

The tweet caused confusion, primarily in Hungary. Budapest’s Keleti railway station had become a busy junction for migrants on their way northwards - and many saw the 143 character tweet as an open invitation to head to Germany

Yet the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees had merely said that asylum seekers would not automatically be sent back. The Dublin Regulation, obliging Hungary to register and care for anyone entering the nation without having been registered in another EU state first, was still valid. 

The numbers of refugees crossing the border into Hungary increased dramatically as a result of the tweet. In frustration, the Hungarian government stopped both registering and caring for them and the situation at the Keleti station became dire. 

File:Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 5 September 2015.jpg

Then, on the evening of September 4th a group of refugees decided to take their fate into their own hands and set out on foot from Budapest to Vienna with the goal of reaching Germany.

Caught off guard, German and Austrian officials worked through the night to stave off a looming humanitarian disaster - thousands of men, women and children filled the highways en route to Austria and Germany, where the borders were officially shut. 

The early hours of September 5th marked the second decisive moment: 

Angela Merkel decided to end the plight of the marchers. Buses were sent to collect them on the highway. More refugees at Keleti followed in busses to Vienna and continued via train to Bavaria. In the morning a short press release was published, confirming what was already a fact. 

That the press release included the word ‘exception’ went unnoticed. The horse had already bolted. Believing Germany had opened its borders, thousands more people would follow in the coming weeks and months.

In the jubilant first months, the word Willkommenskultur entered the German vocabulary. But when the arrivals didn’t stop - month after month new records were set before the peak was reached a year later with 90.000 new asylum applications - Willkommenskultur made way for a different word - Kontrollverlust.

(Source: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge)

Ultimately the question of whether Merkel wanted the refugee arrivals or not is academic to those who were able to take refuge in Germany. And, as imperfect as the response was, the alternative of keeping the borders shut would have been worse, for Germany, Europe and the world.


Five years later, Germany has largely moved on. Attitudes towards refugees are the same now as they were before the dramatic summer. The memories of 2015 have lost their tension.

But just as the question of whether Merkel made the right decision that night five years ago has no simple answer, neither does the question of how well Germany has coped with the unprecedented number of refugees.

It is estimated that roughly €100 Billion has been spent on support measures for refugees since 2016, close to 40 percent are still unemployed and refugees are clearly overrepresented in the crime statistics

(Source: Bundesagentur für Arbeit)

Yet that is only part of the truth. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft believes that the increased government spending and the refugees who are employed added €90 Billion to GDP during the same period.  

A study by the Bundesagentur für Arbeit which followed a cohort of 32.500 random refugees paints a more granular and positive picture than the unemployment snapshot. After three months in the country, four percent of the group had a job: Nine months later the figure had doubled and at the end of the data set, five years in, half were employed. 

Language skills, a key factor for integration, are also improving - in 2018 the number of refugees claiming to speak ‘good’ or ‘very good’ German was nearly 50 percent.  

“We have done a better job at integrating refugees than in the past.” claims Daniel Brücker from the Institut für Arbeitsmarkt und Berufsforschung.

Brücker is comparing it to to the equally large number of asylum seekers - 1.2M mainly from the former Yugoslavia - who between 1990 and 1993 sought refuge in Germany.

(Source: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge)


As summer turns to autumn and a different crisis occupies the nation, the anniversary of the refugee crisis's most decisive moments will soon be forgotten. 

One can only wonder what the parallel universe in which Angela Merkell did not break off the grim nightly march from Budapest and kept the German borders firmly shut would have looked like, five years on.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.

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