UNHCR defends NGO charity groups over migrant rescues in Mediterranean

The UNHCR has defended charity groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean as they come under criticism in Italy. It also reported on a dire situation for children in South Sudan.

Mittelmeer Gerettete Flüchtlinge (picture-alliance/abaca/I. Pastor)

The UN refugee agency has defended private aid groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Some of them have been accused in Italy of cooperating with smugglers in Libya.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday there needed to be a greater effort to rescue a rising number of migrants using Libya as a springboard to reach Europe by boat.

“This is a matter of life or death which appeals to our most basic sense of humanity and should not be called into question,” Grandi said.  “The tireless efforts of the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and of NGOs are truly remarkable.”

Italy’s ruling center-left Democratic Party and the European Commission have also defended the NGOs.

NGOs have rescued about one-third of the more than 43,000 migrants who have made the crossing so far this year. On Friday and Saturday alone, some 6,000 migrants were picked up at sea by NGOs, the Italian navy and Frontex reported.  More than 1,150 migrants have drowned so far this year.

Watch video05:04

Italy: Refugees welcome

Accusations of collusion

Italian Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has in recent weeks accused some private charity boats of colluding with Libyan traffickers, allegations that have been picked up by some politicians in Italy.

The EU border control agency Frontex in a February report described the NGOs as “unintentionally” acting like a “pull factor” for more crossings by saving migrants close to the Libyan coast. But Frontex says there is no evidence of collaboration between the smugglers and NGOs.

The NGOs, led by SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), have defended their actions and denied cooperating with Libyan smugglers. They say they are simply carrying out rescues that should be organized by European governments.

Zuccaro has said bigger charities like MSF and Save the Children were beyond reproach, but he accused smaller private NGO boats of cooperating with smugglers. He has presented no hard evidence to back up the claims, which have since been echoed by Italy’s populist Five Star Movement and right-wing Northern League.

Migrants from Africa fleeing war and poverty have created an opportunity for smugglers based in Libya.

War, famine and poverty

The UN said on Monday that war and famine have forced more than two million children in South Sudan to flee their homes.

Seven-month-old Gire is one of over a million children fleeing violence in South Sudan. Help is urgently needed http://bit.ly/2pO2AOf 

Describing it as the most worrying refugee crisis in the world, Valentin Tapsoba, the UNHCR director in Africa, said, “No refugee crisis today worries me more than South Sudan.” He added: “That refugee children are becoming the defining face of this emergency is incredibly troubling.”

In the country of 12 million people, nearly 75 percent of children do not attend school, more than a million children have fled outside South Sudan and a further million are internally displaced.

cw/jm (AFP, dpa)



EU considering giving ships armed with machine guns to Libyan coastguard accused of killing migrants

Libyan government sends list of requested equipment including boats, helicopters and weapons

Libya is asking the EU for armed ships and helicopters to increase its refugee patrols in the Mediterranean Sea amid allegations of widespread abuse against migrants.

The German parliament said a “list” of wanted equipment, including diving suits, ambulances, communications equipment and night vision gear, was being considered by the European Commission.

EU states are already deploying submarines, ships and aircraft to assist in reconnaissance efforts, although they have been criticised for focusing on smuggling rather than rescue missions as a record number of refugees die at sea.

Libya’s latest request was revealed by a parliamentary question from the opposition Die Linke party, with broadcaster ARD reporting vessels equipped with machine guns were among a total of 130 boats of varying sizes and capacities called for.

They would be used by the Libyan coastguard, which stands accused of beating and shooting refugees while pushing back boats launched by smugglers into the Mediterranean Sea.

Regardless of the agency’s alleged abuses, including attacks on aid agencies’ rescue ships, Britain is among the countries supporting the coastguard with offshore training.

The first round has been completed and discussions are underway for a second batch, The Independent understands.

Desperate journeys: Rescued at sea, refugees detail abuse in Libya

European states backed an agreement struck by Italy to support the fragile Government of National Accord’s (GNA) ability to stem the crisis earlier this year, but the prospect of sending arms has raised alarm.

Isis and Islamist factions are among the countless groups waging a bloody battle for territory in the continuing civil war, where a Russia-backed warlord holds increasing sway.

As well as the threat of extremists gaining weapons and equipment donated by the EU, human rights groups have been outraged by the prospect of European support for Libya forcing migrants into detention centres where they report being raped and tortured in dire conditions.

Some are controlled by authorities affiliated with the GNA, while many are operated by smugglers who abduct migrants and force them into labour, prostitution or extort them for ransom in a lucrative industry.

The International Organisation for Migration revealed that hundreds of young African men are being traded in public in what they described as “slave markets” earlier this month.

“Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border,” said IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle.

“There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.”

The human trade has expanded rapidly amid the chaos following the Nato-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising and ensuing civil war.

Widespread lawlessness has allowed smugglers to thrive along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, which is now the main launching point for refugee boats heading for Europe.

Almost 1,100 migrants have died on the treacherous route to Italy this year, with 44,000 rescued and taken to land, while 4,900 have crossed the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

That route has slowed to a trickle since the controversial EU-Turkey deal came into force last March, seeing all asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands detained under threat of deportation.

But the prospect of implementing a similar agreement with Libya looks slim given the government’s reduced capacity and human rights concerns raised by the UN.

A spokesperson for the GNA has not yet responded to The Independent’s request for details of the reported list of equipment requested from the EU.

Jalal Othman said authorities take all allegations of human rights abuses “very seriously”, after fresh evidence of abuse against migrants emerged earlier this year.

Migrants wait to receive aid distribution provided by the International Organization for Migration in Libya (AFP/Getty Images)

“The Libyan judicial and law-enforcement systems are facing extreme pressures at this time due to the very challenging security situation in the country,” he added.

“We condemn all mistreatment of migrants without reservation. While we have to be realistic about the state’s current law-enforcement capacity, action will be taken wherever possible against those who break the law.

“The Libyan Government of National Accord continues to work closely and productively with our European partners on illegal migration and people-smuggling.”

The refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing after the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Europe, as conflicts continue in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq alongside insurgencies and instability across sub-Saharan Africa.

EU nations granted refugee status or some other protection to more than 700,000 people last year the latest statistics show.

Eurostat said Germany granted asylum to the highest number of applicants, approving 445,000 claims, followed by Sweden, Italy and France.

Of those accepted across Europe, 405,600 were Syrians, 65,800 were Iraqis and 61,800 Afghans.

Lengthy waits continue for migrants stranded in Italy, where 176,000 people are living in reception centres, and Greece, where 62,000 asylum seekers have been trapped by the EU-Turkey deal and border closures through the Balkans

Opinion: Refugees – the new political currency

Politics is about finding a compromise, so it is no surprise that the issue of migration is increasingly defining discussions between Africa and Europe. But this approach is not without risks, writes Jens Borchers.

Spanien Marokko Ceuta Flüchtlinge überwinden Zaun (picture-alliance/dpa/Reduan)

It may sound cynical, but it has become an increasingly visible reality: Migration and fleeing conflict have become a political currency. The evidence of this could, most recently, be seen at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which borders Morocco. Time and again, migrants on Moroccan soil have tried to scale the well-protected, six-meter-high fence. If they get over the fence, they have reached European territory. If they fail, then they have to wait, in miserable conditions, for their next opportunity. The intriguing question is what determines whether the fence can be scaled?

The Western Sahara and the rush on Ceuta

Moroccan security forces play an important role in answering that question. They usually keep a close eye on migrants in the north of the country. But if, in Morocco’s view, there are good political reasons, they may pay a bit less attention. And when they do, a few hundred migrants manage to reach Ceuta – and Europe.

Jens Borchers (HR/Eric Thevenet)Jens Borchers heads the ARD public broadcaster office in Rabat

One such political reason is the delicate issue of Western Sahara. Morocco peacefully occupied this region in 1975 and regards it as part of its territory. But the region’s status has not been resolved under international law, and this has repeatedly resulted in tensions. Most recently this has surfaced again because the European Court of Justice has refused to accept a trade agreement between the EU and Morocco. The reason behind this is that Morocco has included agricultural products from the Western Sahara as part of the agreement. The European Court of Justice found this to be illegal.

That angered the Moroccan government. At the beginning of February, Morocco’s agriculture minister said it seemed as if Europe did not value the enormous efforts made by the Kingdom of Morocco in protecting the European borders from illegal immigrants. His ministry recently warned in a statement that a new influx of migrants could be on its way towards Europe – if difficulties between Morocco and the European Union continue. A new, small influx of migrants was precisely what we then saw occur twice in Ceuta a few days ago. A third attempt was eventually stopped by Moroccan security forces.

Europe puts its values up for sale

This is how migration become a “political currency.” Germany and Europe are afraid of more immigration. It is only logical that countries that could prevent the steady flow of people to Europe would use this to further their own interests. Morocco is trying to do this, as is Turkey. Even the West African country Niger has long understood that its level of cooperation on migration matters can be used as a tool to gain political and financial capital. This principle behind this is: If I keep the migrants off your turf, you will comply with my political demands – be it money, concessions, or the label “safe country of origin.” And this is our, Europe’s, contribution to the fact that migration and migrants have become political currency.

This especially endangers our much quoted European values: The more we push aside, buy or negotiate ourselves out of the migration problem, the more hollow our constantly proclaimed values and standards of openness, equal opportunity and the inviolability of human rights become.




German states rebel against federal government over deportations

Angela Merkel’s government has promised to send rejected asylum seekers home, but some local states aren’t cooperating. Schleswig-Holstein, for example, has temporarily halted all deportations to Afghanistan.

Symbolbild Abschiebung Flüchtlinge (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler)

Schleswig-Holstein will not be sending anyone back to Afghanistan for at least until May 31, the northern German state announced on Tuesday. Schleswig-Holstein’s Social Democrat (SPD) Interior Minister Stefan Studt said that the state government was taking the step for “humanitarian reasons” because deportees weren’t guaranteed “security and dignity” in Afghanistan. Some 700 Afghans with no right of residence currently reside in the northern German state.

Responsibility for deporting people whose applications for asylum have been rejected or have no right to reside in Germany rests with the country’s 16 federal states, and Schleswig-Holstein’s decision underscores the conflict between local and national authorities on the issue.

Earlier this month, conservative Chancellor Merkel told her Christian Democratic (CDU) colleagues at a party convention in the state that “We can’t simply say we’ll never again return anyone to Afghanistan.” But Schleswig-Holstein is saying precisely that, at least for the next three-and-a-half months.

Merkel hoped that she had found a solution to the issue last week in Berlin when she reached agreement with the leaders of the federal states to speed up deportations. But particularly those states that are led by Social Democratic-Green coalitions are resisting enforcing the chancellor’s promise to send more people back to their homelands.

The deportation issue is a contentious one in a year including a general election preceded by two important elections at the state level, and the situation at the moment appears to be a stalemate. So how can the impasse be broken, and who is likely to win out in the end?

Deutschland - Proteste in Köln und Düsseldorf gegen die Deportation nach Afghanistan (E. Hadid)Activists have protested across Germany against deportations to Afghanistan

Carrots and sticks

Merkel’s government, and in particular Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, isn’t happy about Schleswig-Holstein’s rebellion.

“Even before the hiatus was announced, the minister wrote to all the states, and Schleswig-Holstein in particular, and told them that he thought this was the wrong signal right now,” Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said on Wednesday in Berlin. “The fact is that individual states can declare hiatuses in the short term. But if the duration is longer, they need the Interior Ministry to agree.”

Others aren’t content to wait until the Schleswig-Holstein moratorium expires. A number of conservatives, including Gerda Hasselfeldt, a high-ranking parliamentarian from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, have called for cuts in federal assistance to states that resist common deportation policies.

But experts say that sanctions are less likely than federal incentives to enhance cooperation.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Ulrich Karpen, Professor Emeritus of Law and deportation expert, told Deutsche Welle. “I do think the federal government could give some states additional funds depending on the number of people with no resident rights they deport. That would create positive incentives. Better carrots than sticks.”

Infografik Deportations from Germany have risen sorted by German federal states ENGMore and more people are being deported from Germany

Other states of conflict

The issue is not just confined to Schleswig-Holstein. There have also been various degrees of reluctance or refusal to go along with the federal deportation plans in Berlin, Bremen, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia – other states led by the SPD and Greens. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, local Green Party spokeswoman for refugee issues, Monika Düker, resigned in December in protest at the state’s deportation of people back to Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is not a safe country,” Düker’s successor Verena Schäffer told DW. “So it would a strong signal if all the Social Democratic state interior ministers would declare a three-month deportation moratorium. It’s high time that de Maizière and (German Foreign Minister Sigmar) Gabriel reevaluate the security situation in Afghanistan and stop the deportations.”

Infografik Abschiebungen Deutschland ENG

The issue is particularly sensitive because 2017 sees not only the German national election in September, but also state elections in both Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in May. So there’s a lot at stake in local deportation policies.

Public sentiment favors deportations, including to countries some consider dangerous. In an opinion survey published by Focus magazine last week, nearly three-quarters of those asked said they thought convicted criminals and those deemed a threat to Germany should be sent back to Afghanistan. Twenty percent said those with rejected asylum applications should be as well.

Karpen said such pressure could force the social Democrats and Greens to adjust their position.

“The public mood is such that they actually can’t afford to block deportations,” Karpen explained. “I think if push comes to shove, the federal government will cite the wishes of voters. I can imagine that there’ll be cooperation, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia.”

North Rhine-Westphalia is particularly important because it is Germany’s most populous state, and the election there on May 14 could set the tone for the national ballot on September 24.

Thomas de Maizière Innenminister (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E. Contini)De Maizière would like to see a bigger federal role in deporting rejected asylum seekers

A tug-of-war for authority

Ultimately, de Maiziére and other conservative leaders in the national government would like to bring more central authority to bear on deportations. That could include the establishment of federal “departure centers” so that illegal aliens could be sent back to their countries of origin more quickly.

But even if the states do ultimately cooperate with federal authorities, they are unlikely to voluntarily cede one of their main powers.

“That would mean that the states would give up one of their assets, the authority over police coercion,” Karpen explained. “That’s hard to imagine.”

Instead Karpen expects a federal-local compromise, in which states accept nominally logistical federal “help” while officially retaining the authority to carry out deportations. Still, the fundamental conflict is unlikely to disappear completely.

“I think it would be better for the federal government to carry out deportations,” Karpen said. “Our residency law is a national one – with good reason. I think the government’s suggestion isn’t bad. But federal police won’t carry our deportations. There will be a national coordination point. Again, it’s a question of carrots and sticks.”



US-Australia refugee deal: Trump in ‘worst call’ with Turnbull


Media captionAustralia PM Malcolm Turnbull on Trump call: ‘Call ended courteously’

A phone call between US President Donald Trump and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull has called into question a refugee resettlement deal.

The Washington Post reported Mr Trump called the conversation “the worst by far” of his calls with world leaders that day, and cut it short.

Mr Trump later tweeted that he would “study this dumb deal”.

Struck with the Obama administration, it would see up to 1,250 asylum seekers to Australia resettled in the US.

Australia has controversially refused to accept the refugees – most of whom are men from Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq – and instead holds them in offshore detention centres on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Turnbull had been seeking clarification on the future of the deal after Mr Trump last Friday signed an executive order temporarily barring the entry into the US of refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Later on Thursday, Mr Trump seemed to brush off the reports, saying it was only right that he would need to have tough conversations with other world leaders.

Media captionDonald Trump was unapologetic on “tough phone calls”

“The world is in trouble but we’re gonna straighten it out… That’s what I do, I fix things,” he said, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast meeting in Washington DC.

What do we know about the phone call?

The phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull took place on Saturday, and was one of four the US president had with world leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Washington Post quotes senior US officials, briefed on the call, as saying that the conversation should have lasted an hour but was abruptly ended after 25 minutes by Mr Trump.

Mr Turnbull was seeking assurances from Mr Trump that the deal would be honoured.

The US president reportedly said accepting the refugees would be like the US accepting “the next Boston bombers”, who were from the Caucasus region of Russia.

File photo of asylum seekers holding up identity cards after landing in Manus island in Papua New GuineaImage copyrightAP
Image captionThese asylum seekers to Australia had their application processed in Papua New Guinea

The official version of the call from the US was brief, but said both leaders had “emphasised the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship”.

On Monday Mr Turnbull confirmed he had spoken to Mr Trump and thanked him for agreeing to uphold the deal.

US presidential spokesman Sean Spicer has since also said Mr Trump intends to uphold the deal.

But Mr Trump’s tweet on Wednesday – coming after the Washington Post story – has thrown fresh doubt on the arrangement.

@realDonaldTrump tweets: Image copyright@REALDONALDTRUMP/TWITTER
Image captionMr Trump’s tweet wrongly referenced “thousands of illegal immigrants” – only 1,250 migrants would be accepted by the US, legally

Mr Turnbull later said he was disappointed that details of the call – which he described as “very frank and forthright” – had been made public.

He told a Sydney radio station that “the report that the president hung up is not correct”.

What is the deal about?

Australia announced in November 2016 that the US had agreed to a one-off deal to resettle refugees currently being held on Nauru and Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

In return, Mr Turnbull’s administration agreed to resettle refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, would oversee the deal and the “most vulnerable” would be prioritised, the Australian premier said.

No numbers were given and Australian Immigration Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo later told a Senate inquiry that, while those who were eligible could express an interest, it was up to the US to decide how many people it wanted to take.

A total of 1,254 people were being held in the two camps, 871 on Manus Island and 383 in Nauru, as of 30 November 2016, according to Australian government statistics.

Mr Trump’s tweet incorrectly labelled refugees as illegal, and recast the number who might be resettled as “thousands”.

Australia refuses to accept refugees who arrive by boat, under a tough deterrent policy. It has already struck resettlement deals with Cambodia and PNG, but only a handful of refugees have been resettled. Critics say the two nations are completely ill-equipped to resettle refugees.

So the US deal was a boon to the Australian government from a close political and military ally.

Australia has faced fierce international criticism for its offshore detention policy and wants to close the Manus Island camp. Conditions in the offshore camps have been roundly condemned by rights groups, who say the policy is punitive and inflicts harm on refugees.

Who are the refugees?

Media caption“We sleep all day, nothing else” – a young female detainee describes life in the Nauru detention centre

Official figures show that about 80% of those held on Manus Island and Nauru have been found to be genuine refugees (those found not to be are not eligible for the US deal).

All of the occupants of Manus Island are male. By far the largest number are from Iran, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. There are also sizeable contingents from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar.

The Nauru camp holds men, women and children. Again the largest number come from Iran, followed by Sri Lanka and those who are stateless.

Some of those being held have spent several years in the camps awaiting a decision on their fate.

Bavarian government to release new refugee policy so ‘Germany remains Germany’

Amid an ongoing dispute with Berlin, Bavaria’s government is due to finalize its proposal for Germany’s refugee policy. As well as a yearly cap on refugee arrivals, Premier Horst Seehofer is calling for tighter borders.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge überqueren der Grenze von Österreich nach Deutschland (picture alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert)


Merkel mulls flexible target for asylum seeker numbers

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU has floated the idea of flexible annual targets for asylum seeker numbers. With elections on the horizon Merkel wants to smooth over a rumbling row with her Bavarian coalition partner. (06.01.2017)

CSU’s Seehofer stresses migrant cap as prerequisite for next German coalition

Merkel orders massive security review after Berlin attack

The ever-growing divide between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), showed no sign of resolving itself on Saturday, with Munich’s local newspaper the “Münchner Merkur” reporting that the Bavarian government is due on Tuesday to finalize its overall concept on refugee and immigration policy in Germany.

The charter titled “So that Germany remains Germany” was reportedly written by CSU leader and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer.

At the top of the agenda is the CSU’s long-time demand for an upper-limit on the number of asylum seekers accepted in Germany – something Bavaria aims to achieve through EU quotas.

For months, the CSU has called a yearly cap of no more than 200,000 refugees, a move that Merkel has repeatedly rejected. The debate has prompted an unwelcome divide in the so-called “Union” of conservative CDU and CSU – particularly in the year of Germany’s federal election.

Watch video02:10

CSU stands by demand for refugee cap (04.01.2017)

Unrest among conservatives 

The CSU, which often takes more conservative stances than the CDU, has sharply criticized Merkel’s open-door policies that allowed more than a million people to enter the country as refugees and migrants since 2015. Last month Seehofer even ruled out governing with Merkel’s CDU should they refuse to introduce an upper limit on the number of migrants entering Germany.

In an apparent attempt to calm the rumbling debate, Merkel’s CDU proposed on Friday the idea of flexible annual targets for asylum seeker numbers. The Christian Democrats gave no precise numbers but called for Germany to set a new target each year based on the humanitarian situation in global crisis zones and Germany’s ability to absorb newcomers.

Alongside its refugee cap, the Bavarian state government is also proposing further restrictions on family reunions for refugees, possibly calling for asylum-seekers to secure a livelihood independent of state subsidies before being permitted to apply for family members to join them in Germany.

The basic protection for migrants in old age should also be restricted if they have not spent the most important period of working life in Germany, the Bavarian government wrote, adding that asylum-seekers who commit a criminal offense in Germany also “forfeit their right to hospitality” and must be deported.

Angela Merkel and Horst SeehoferFor months, Chancellor Merkel (CDU) and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer (CSU) have been at loggerheads over Germany’s refugee policy

‘Humanitarian responsibility’

At the same time, however, the paper also states its commitment to the reception of refugees.

“The admission of those in need of protection is a requirement of Christian and humanitarian responsibility,” the document reads, adding that Germany must proceed with “zero tolerance against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.”

The charter also calls for the expansion of aid to developing countries, with Seehofer demanding an “African Act” from the European Union (EU). Aid programs can no longer be underfunded, the paper continues, noting that without the financial support, misery and distress would increase in refugee camps.

Watch video02:01

Germany: Plans for security overhaul

Schengen under pressure

In light of the terror attack on Berlin last month, the Bavarian government is also proposing tighter border controls. Twelve people were killed and almost 50 others injured, when a truck was rammed into a Berlin Christmas market. Police suspect Tunisian asylum-seeker and “Islamic State” (IS) sympathizer Anis Amri was behind the wheel.

After fleeing the scene on Decmeber 19, Amri was able to cross Germany’s border into the Netherlands and travel via France to Italy, where he was later killed in a police shootout in Milan. His unchecked travel was possible due to the Schengen Zone – the EU’s borderless travel region.

In light of the growing number of terror attacks, however, the Schengen agreement is being put under increasing pressure, with Merkel also ordering a comprehensive review of Germany’s security infrastructure.


Opinion: An attack on German stability

The political desecration has already begun, conflating the Berlin attack with refugee policy. All we know for certain is that such terrible crimes destabilize the country, says DW’s Volker Wagener.

Deutschland Neun Tote und viele Verletzte auf Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party knew immediately: “These are Merkel’s dead.” The uncrowned champions of spreading oversimplified wisdom wasted no time in offering an opinion. Apparently, this is their way of mobilizing simple minds even as victims lie in hospital beds fighting for their lives. Not that such shamelessness comes unexpectedly – quite the opposite. Crisis situations, especially human tragedies, are a regular launch pad for crude accusations and calls for a political change of course.

The attack in Berlin, however, represents a turning point. German society, content for decades, at times even self-satisfied, is nervous. In general, people see Chancellor Angela Merkel as a level-headed guarantor of stability in an age of multiple crises. But she is also seen as the cause of societal polarization, a criticism that has only been exacerbated by her refugee policies. It is impossible to separate the so-called “welcome culture” from German authorities’ partial loss of control when dealing with refugees. So impossible that many are no longer sure whether the situation that Merkel kicked off with her cry of “We can do this!” was good or bad.

The symbolic act of killing

This much is clear: It was an attack – one with symbolic character. Anyone who brings death and devastation to Berlin, and further, to a Christmas market, knows exactly what they aim to achieve. Germany, still seen as an honest broker pursuing a rather reserved foreign policy around the world, has now been identified by Islamic terrorists as a major enemy. There has not been an attack on this scale in Germany since the 1980 Oktoberfest bombing in Munich, in which a neo-Nazi killed 13 people and injured over 200 more. The time and place of the attack were also symbolic. The attacker struck in the heart of Berlin, the secret center of European power, and at a Christmas market. Despite being of a commercial nature, such markets are also the site of a specifically Christian ritual. Since the attack, the abstract fear of terror in Germany has become very real.

Debate over security continues

That has brought forth actual, and self-proclaimed security policymakers. It was to be expected that some would propose deploying the army to ensure order. The motto is always the same, “we can give it a try,” and ignores the fact that the constitution forbids a domestic deployment of the army. Worse still is the looming debate about connections between the arrival of refugees and the threat of terrorism – if such a connection even exists.

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild AppDW’s Volker Wagener

With calls for a readjustment of refugee and security policies, Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), quickly reopened the can of worms that the chancellor struggled so hard to close just a few weeks ago. Citizens’ cries for more security are certainly justified, but the truck attacks in Nice and Berlin demonstrate a bitter reality: A 40-ton vehicle can become a tool for mass murder in the hands of one person – whether refugees come into a country or not.

Can the chancellor do this?

One need not be a misguided AfD adherent to recognize that German rule of law has been gravely injured – a fact that makes it easy for populists to further incite fear. The uncontrolled influx of immigrants in 2015, the New Year’s Eve debacle in Cologne and now the dead of Breitscheidplatz in Berlin are all seen by citizens as evidence that the state has failed them – even if it is an illusion to believe that the government can somehow control unforeseen events.

But something has changed: Political priorities will shift. The federal government has a core mission again. Angela Merkel knows what will be expected of her. The main issue of the upcoming election campaign is now domestic security. Merkel will have to restore peoples’ trust in government to keep voters from veering right, into the arms of the populists. Should she fail, the attacker’s victory would be to have sown doubt, and to have destabilized consensus within a democratic society.

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