ISIS-claimed German attack presents yet another test for asylum policies

Germany has already begun to make its policies tougher. This week's train attack by a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker may push it further in that direction.

Michael Probst/AP
Police officers stand at the crime scene near the river Main in Warzburg, Germany, where a 17-year-old man from Afghanistan was shot the night before after wounding four people with an axe.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has taken responsibility for an attack by a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who wounded five people with an axe near the southern German city of Würzburg on Monday, calling the attacker an IS “soldier”.

German officials said that they could not verify the claim of IS involvement, made through news affiliate Amaq. Bavarian interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said that a “hand-painted IS flag” had been found in the room where the teenager was staying with a foster family in the region, according to The New York Times.

Four victims were wounded on board a train near Würzburg, while another woman walking her dog nearby was also hospitalized. Two of the train victims, members of a family of tourists from Hong Kong, suffered “acute, life-threatening” injuries, according to German prosecutors. The suspect himself was killed by police outside of the train after a passenger pulled the emergency brake.

The incident is the latest in a string of attacks said to be inspired by IS that target civilians in countries around the world. And some say the fact that the suspect was an unaccompanied minor who had sought asylum could accelerate a chipping-away of support for Germany's generous policies toward refugees from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan.

Under German policy, migrants who are fleeing war can be eligible to stay. That isn’t the case for “economic migrants,” or those seeking opportunity, not asylum, as the German government has ramped up deportations of people falling in the latter category.

But after violent incidents, distinct categories of people hoping for the right to stay tend to get mixed up in the public's mind, further feeding some Germans' resentment for unpopular policies, according to Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a senior fellow and president emeritus at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. 

“Everybody [in Germany’s government] will be on the defensive over the next month,” Dr. Papademetriou tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

“This fellow belonged to the most vulnerable of classes,” he says. “I could guarantee you that the outcome of his [asylum] adjudication would [have been] positive, at least until he reached the age of eighteen ... No one in Europe is ready to say no to any unaccompanied minors.”

As of late January, over 60,000 unaccompanied children and adolescents had arrived in Germany as of the end of January 2016, according to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees. One in three of those applications were submitted by Afghan minors.

Faced with an unprecedented influx of refugees into Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an unabashedly idealist stance, saying in 2015 that there would be “no upper limit” to the right to asylum and ordering thousands of refugees in Hungary be brought to Germany. Some 1.1 million people applied for asylum that year, according to the interior ministry, although not all of them will be awarded it – and only a fraction have been adjudicated.

But as time has worn on, public opinion has grown less enthusiastic. 62 percent of Germans feel the country has taken in too many asylum seekers, according to a January YouGov poll, up from 43 percent in November 2015. 

More than 1,200 women have reported being assaulted by crowds of men, many of whom were allegedly foreign, last New Year's Eve in the city of Cologne. As of early July, four have been convicted. In retribution, a wave of arson attacks targeted refugee centers across Germany. And in March regional elections, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party made an unprecedentedly strong showing in a country where the far right is traditionally weak.

Kaija Schilde, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies who studies EU security and migration policy, thinks the attack in Würzburg could lead to tighter controls on borders across the Union.

“Germany can’t control who comes. It can only control who stays,” she tells the Monitor. “That’s the elephant in the room.”

Dr. Schilde says that instead of piling on controls on Europe’s borders, EU member countries should cooperate more on security and intelligence. Right now, “they have to be draconian at borders because they lack an internal coordinating body for security.”

Merkel has defended her policies on a pragmatic level, as well as for humanitarian reasons, saying they would help fill gaps in the German workforce. But backlash over the incident in Cologne appears to have tempered her own enthusiasm somewhat. She has since said that the majority of refugees would eventually need to return home when conflicts end.

“If this is a one-off incident, this will be forgotten,” says Papademetriou. “But if there is another incident that people will classify for political reasons as similar to this, all bets are off.”

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