Afghan Refugee Crisis: Why Merkel Closed Her Open Border

The Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 ignited a bitter rivalry between Germany's Angela Merkel and Austria's Sebastian Kurz. Merkel was in favor of a "culture of welcome," while Kurz argued for border protection. But with the current Afghan refugee crisis, the German leader is shifting course.

Angela Merkel leaving the German Bundestag in Berlin, September 2021

Klaus Geiger and Christoph B. Schiltz


BERLIN — Six years ago, the now outgoing German Chancellor,Angela Merkel argued that borders cannot be divided by walls. That was on Oct. 26, 2015. Her future Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, disagreed. "It's simply not true to claim that it doesn't work," he said in an Austrian radio interview. "The question is whether we want to do it or not."

It was the first time the Austrian chancellor, at that time foreign minister, had openly contradicted Merkel. Kurz went on to say that it was "hypocritical" to give Turkey money for border protection and "at the same time make grand statements about humanity." He said Merkel should "be honest" about her stance.

Here was a 29-year-old politician openly accusing the most powerful national leader in Europe of hypocrisy and dishonesty. It was the start of a long-running battle that centered on different views about what the values of a conservative party should be. A battle that is suddenly heating up again.

In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.

Last week, Sebastian Kurz made what will probably be his last visit to the departing German chancellor. The subject of their discussions was once again how to deal with refugees. In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.

"Austria has taken on more than its fair share of Afghan refugees," said Kurz as he stood next to Merkel in Berlin. "Relative to our population, we have the fourth largest Afghan community in the world."

A quiet convergence

Kurz is not playing politics with the German chancellor. His view on accepting refugees from Afghanistan is well known. For weeks now, every time Kurz has stood before a microphone, he has said the same thing: no Afghan refugees in Austria, or in Europe, whether they arrive there themselves or are taken as part of a quota. He has argued for helping refugees within Afghanistan or its neighboring countries, and sending any refugees who arrive in Europe back to the region.

In his interview in October 2015, he was already arguing for a system "where asylum seekers can make their applications in their country of origin or countries they are passing through, outside of the European Union."

His stance has been unwavering. Instead, it's Angela Merkel who has been edging gradually closer to Kurz's position. While in 2015 and 2016 she consistently argued for "solidarity" in accepting quotas of refugees in Europe. Now Merkel is speaking about deportation and protecting the EU's borders.

The two politicians, who also clashed during the Syrian refugee crisis, now seem to be aligned. Merkel is not contradicting Kurz at all. Like him, she says that the EU should provide funds to help people stay in Afghanistan — that they need to look after the 550,000 or so internally displaced people within Afghanistan and protect them from a possible famine. Meanwhile, conversations with neighboring countries about accepting refugees are ongoing.

People evacuated from Afghanistan waiting in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — Photo: Uwe Anspach/dpa/ZUMA Press

Merkel is employing two strategies: First, she is narrowing down the question. For the moment she has said that she is focusing on the "10,000 to 40,000" local staff, although UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has said that the internally displaced persons in Afghanistan are the biggest problem.

Second, Merkel is playing for time when it comes to the refugees who want to travel to Europe. "We have not yet reached a decision" about quotas for the resettlement of those entitled to protection in Europe, she says. "We will only be able to answer that question when we see how many people leave Afghanistan." That will depend on conditions under the Taliban.

The EU is struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement will be decided at national level.

The resettlement question has already sparked conflict within the EU. The European Commission has asked member states to declare by mid-September how many refugees they can accept — not only Afghans, but generally. In total, all member countries only promised 30,000 places for 2020 and 2021. Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, was the first European politician to name a special figure for Afghans, saying the EU should accept 40,000 to 50,000 people.

German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) was quick to reject Asselborn's proposal. "Luxembourg takes on very few refugees, and it should consider the interests of those countries that accept the bulk of refugees a little more closely," he said. The EU is currently struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement numbers will be decided at national level.

Mum's the word

Since Kurz first came to power in 2017, Austria has no longer taken part in resettlement programs. Greece and Slovenia have announced that they will not accept any Afghans. Countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal and Spain, however, have said they will take a quota, although as yet no one has named a concrete figure.

Then there are those who make their own way by land to Europe. During the Syrian refugee crisis, Germany accepted more than a million people who arrived this way. But although these people were at the heart of Angela Merkel's culture of welcome six years ago, she is now remaining silent about them.

Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran, in order to keep Afghans out. Greece is building a wall on its land border with Turkey and returning migrants it picks up on the water to Turkey, although that is against EU law. And so far, Angela Merkel is saying nothing.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."


Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

➡️


$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.


It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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