In the heart of Europe, Germany faces a complex and evolving challenge – irregular migration. Armed police officers along the motorway connecting Poland to Germany wave cars off, diligently searching for people-smugglers and their vulnerable cargo. The German government has been making considerable efforts to demonstrate its commitment to tackling the surging levels of irregular migration. However, our journey to a rural border district in Altenberg, Saxony, paints a different picture. There, the sense of control seems to be slipping away.
Altenberg: A Border Town Struggling with Smugglers
Altenberg, nestled in Saxony near the Czech Republic, may seem idyllic at first glance. Families enjoy toboggan runs through the forest, and during winter, the town boasts a small ski resort. Yet, beneath this picturesque exterior, a pressing issue looms. Markus Wiesenberg, the local mayor, reveals that smugglers frequently drop off people in this area, sometimes as often as once a day. It’s a relentless cycle where traffickers vanish into the shadows only to return for the next load.
This constant influx of new arrivals exerts immense pressure on local services and the residents themselves. Local inhabitants often stumble upon sleeping bags and campfires in the woods, raising concerns for the safety of their children. Irregular migration in Germany is not just a national issue; it’s a local one with immediate consequences.
Recent Surge in Irregular Migration
Germany’s struggle with irregular migration has taken a more prominent role in the national debate, particularly with the far-right capitalizing on the issue, leading to significant gains in regional elections. This political climate prompted ministers to order “temporary” checks on Germany’s land borders with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland, even within the supposedly border-free Schengen Zone.
The numbers are striking – 21,366 individuals entered Germany illegally in September, marking the highest monthly figure since early 2016, according to Federal Police. Despite the challenges, Germany remains a top destination for asylum seekers, driven by its reputation as a safe haven in Europe.
The Asylum Seekers’ Journey
Inside an old youth hostel in rural Saxony, more than 50 men await the start of their uncertain journey. Among them is Muhammad Abdoum, a 33-year-old Syrian who has successfully applied for asylum. He aspires to rebuild his life in Germany, but the scars of his past weigh heavily on him. His journey from war-torn Syria to Germany was a long and arduous one, passing through Turkey, the Balkans, and, eventually, here, to a remote outpost just meters from the Czech border.
Muhammad dreams of a fresh start, perhaps even a family, in Germany. However, his emotional recounting of the “lost” decade in his life serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by those seeking refuge.
Local Concerns and Protests
In the evening, a small crowd assembles in the village square of Hermsdorf, just a ten-minute drive from the hostel. Their protest is driven by the fear that nearby apartments might be used to house migrants. Residents like Thomas and Anja express concerns about the safety of their community if large numbers of young men arrive. While they acknowledge the successful integration of an Iraqi family into their village, they worry about the implications of mass migration.
The rise of far-right, anti-immigration parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in polls has spurred action from Berlin. Plans to expedite deportations of failed asylum seekers are being introduced, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has taken steps to increase the number of returns, even visiting Nigeria to explore options.
A New Approach to Irregular Migration
Despite the efforts, a “sense of fear” has pervaded German politics, leading to discussions on alternative solutions. Gerald Knaus, chair of the European Stability Initiative think tank in Berlin, dismisses border checks and fast-tracking asylum applications as “fake solutions.” He suggests reviving and expanding agreements like the 2016 deal with Turkey, which promised aid and visa-free travel in exchange for curbing migration to the EU.
Some German political figures, including those within the governing coalition, call for third-country deals. One idea suggests processing asylum claims in nations that migrants pass through on their way to the EU. This could help prevent people with no prospects of asylum from embarking on the perilous Mediterranean route.
The Ongoing Debate
On Monday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet with Germany’s regional leaders to address the pressing issue of migration. Germany’s current migration debate reflects a confluence of factors – efforts to manage irregular migration run parallel to attempts to address labor shortages by attracting skilled foreign workers. Germany has also extended its hand to over a million people from Ukraine, mainly women and children, following Russia’s full-scale invasion. The increased backing for the AfD coincides with criticism of elected leaders for not effectively addressing the migration debate.
Mayor Markus Wiesenberg, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party, sums up the prevailing sentiment: “It seems we didn’t learn the lesson of 2015.” Germany faces an ongoing challenge, and the path forward remains uncertain.
The complexity of irregular migration in Germany is a multifaceted issue that demands innovative solutions and a balance between humanitarian concerns and national interests. While the government grapples with this challenge, the effects of irregular migration are deeply felt in communities like Altenberg and Hermsdorf, underscoring the urgent need for thoughtful, comprehensive strategies.