Angela Merkel's Hard Choice: Placating Voters or Saving Refugees

Berlin's legacy of division is clear to anyone visiting the German capital. Sections of the wall that once separated the democratic West from the Communist East have been left standing as reminders of the costs of partition. When the wall fell in 1989, Berliners hoped they would never again see their capital divided.

But a new divisive issue is now threatening the unity of Berlin—and of the country at large. Last year, the city of 3.5 million people took in 80,000 refugees. During an interview in November, Berlin's mayor, Michael Müller, said the city, like the rest of Germany, was "overrun by the big number of refugees," adding that in one month the capital took in more people than in the past three years. A backlog formed, and in the struggle to house everyone, officials sent many to large shelters. In January, Berlin's Refugee Council, an independent organization that helps refugees, said that 85 percent of asylum seekers in Berlin were living in schools, gyms, a disused airport and various other large buildings that the authorities had repurposed for housing.

That same month, city officials announced that a house in the Moabit district, which had sheltered Berlin's homeless for 20 years, would also be used to house refugees. The company managing the property plans to carve up the larger rooms into two, placing asylum-seekers alongside Berlin's destitute.

Though Berlin may be struggling, the government has asked other parts of Germany to take in far higher numbers of refugees. In 2015, the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg were responsible for processing 28 percent of all asylum applications. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under particular pressure from voters and politicians in these regions to change her policy toward refugees.

"This cannot go on any longer," says Philipp Lengsfeld, a member of parliament from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party led by Merkel. "The numbers need to come down. Refugees and migrants are leaving camps outside of Europe and simply coming to another here. We need to further change our laws, we need border controls in Germany."

In late 2015, as news spread of Merkel's open-door policy for refugees, asylum-seekers began entering the country in far greater numbers than ever before, reaching 1.1 million arrivals by the end of December. This year, refugee advocacy organizations expect the rate of new arrivals to stay the same or increase. In January 2016, 91,671 people sought asylum in Germany . That was a decline compared with the previous month, owing perhaps to worsening weather conditions, but it was still very high compared with the previous year's first quarter. In the first three months of 2015, Germany received just 73,120 asylum applications.

Many of the new arrivals are now being met with hostility. The November 13 attacks in Paris, and the hundreds of alleged sexual assaults and robberies in cities across Germany on New Year's Eve, have hardened the public's attitude toward refugees. Police in both countries have said asylum-seekers were among those responsible for the attacks.

Cologne, where the greatest number of attacks occurred, is in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In 2015, the federal government said North Rhine-Westphalia would take 21 percent of all arrivals, the highest quota for any state in Germany. Now many German politicians are calling for much stricter immigration controls. Merkel, some say, has made a catastrophic error. A poll published in Focus magazine on January 29 found that 40 percent of the Germans surveyed wanted "Mama Merkel" to resign over her refugee policy.

The chancellor finds herself in a difficult position. As someone who grew up in East Germany, she knows what it is like to be deprived of freedom and opportunity. She, like most Germans, is also deeply conscious of the role the country played in two world wars. But after the attacks in Cologne, she is under increasing pressure to tack to the right.

Many Germans have already begun adopting hard-line views. After the New Year's Eve attacks, the anti-Islam group Pegida saw a surge in support. On January 9, it organized a march through Cologne. Around 1,700 Germans attended the demonstration. Three days later, 250 right-wing rioters swept through Leipzig, looting and destroying buildings that belonged to immigrants.

Pegida was not the only anti-immigrant group to attract new followers. On January 19, a poll published in Bild magazine found that 12.5 percent of those surveyed would vote for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the next election. This makes it the third most popular party in the country. In November, the AfD was polling at 10.5 percent. The party's leader, Frauke Petry, has said German police "must stop migrants crossing illegally from Austria and, if necessary, use firearms."

In her annual New Year's address, Merkel urged Germans not to follow people "with hate in their hearts." But the chancellor, who governs in a coalition, cannot afford to ignore all of the critics of her refugee policy, particularly her political partners.

On January 26, Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, said in a letter to the chancellor that he would take her to Germany's constitutional court unless she changed her policy on refugees. Calling for tighter border controls in Germany and an annual quota of 200,000 asylum-seekers, Seehofer wrote, "This development cannot be allowed to continue."

Within the CDU, Lengsfeld says, most members agree that the situation must change. "Everyone has limits to what they can cope with. Which country has no limits?" he asks. "We want to give shelter for those that need it, but right now the refugee crisis is straining all parts of German society."

That's a view shared by Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the parliamentary group of the Social Democratic Party, a center-left party that makes up the rest of the ruling coalition. "We urgently need to reduce the high numbers of refugees arriving in Germany," Oppermann says. He added that Germany cannot afford to have the same numbers arrive in 2016 that came in 2015.

Of the 1.1 million asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany last year, Lengsfeld says, 50 percent were denied permission to remain. (Very few of this number came from the war-torn countries of Syria and Iraq. Nationals from those two countries have high acceptance rates in Germany.) But, Lengsfeld adds, once they're in the country, it's very difficult to remove them. "There are huge practical problems with sending people back. Lawyers and activists get involved, there are all sorts of measures to delay the return process. Once people cross our border, we struggle to send them home."

With the German general election due to be held in 2017, Merkel may hope she has time to quiet the voices of dissent within her government. At first she tried pushing for long-term solutions to the problem, including giving 3 billion euros in aid to Turkey in November to help it crack down on the smuggling of refugees to Europe, and improving conditions in refugee camps to discourage Syrians from leaving. But politicians within the coalition, increasingly worried about the AfD's surge in support, began lobbying in January for immediate solutions.

On January 28, Merkel announced that asylum-seekers from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria will probably be denied asylum in Germany unless they can prove they are victims of persecution. Police say many of the New Year's Eve attackers were of North African origin, which may partly explain the chancellor's new policy.

Two days later, Merkel said that many of the refugees Germany had taken in were on temporary visas and that refugees from Syria and Iraq would be sent back to their countries once the wars there end. She did not clarify whether refugees would still be allowed to apply for permanent residency if they stayed for longer than the three years the temporary permits allow.

Some German politicians, including Lengsfeld, say it will likely be several years before that happens. "I was a little surprised by that announcement," Lengsfeld says. "I'm just not sure how realistic it is."

Merkel is also looking increasingly isolated among the traditionally liberal Northern European nations. In November, Sweden announced an end to its open-door policy, saying that asylum-seekers would be subject to rigorous identity checks and that the right of refugees to bring their families over would be restricted.

As Sweden's deputy prime minister, Åsa Romson, announced the news, she started to cry. As a member of the country's left-wing Green Party, she governs in a coalition with the Social Democrats. Her party strongly supported accepting refugees, but the country's prime minister, Social Democrat Stefan Löfven, said during the same conference that Sweden "cannot do any more."

Across Western Europe, the generosity of 2015 seems to be ebbing. For many refugees, Germany was the last country where they thought they could be assured asylum, but now even the wealthiest, most welcoming country in Europe is starting to struggle with accepting them. As Merkel seeks to appease her critics with more restrictions, it is looking increasingly uncertain where the refugees will now go. But one thing is clear: Even as borders close, they are still determined to come.