Why Angela Merkel is standing her ground on asylum policy

The German chancellor said recent attacks on civilians by asylum-seekers were a 'slap in the face' of the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking shelter from war-torn regions.

Markus Schreiber/AP
Photographers and television cameras cover German Chancellor Angela Merkel (center l.) as she leaves a joint news conference in Berlin, Germany.

German chancellor Angela Merkel defended her government’s refugee policy at a press conference in Berlin on Thursday, insisting that the country was capable of handling what she called a “historic test” of integrating refugees from war-torn areas.

Wir schaffen das,” she said, echoing the phrase she spoke upon announcing the policy a year ago: “We can do this.”

The chancellor sought to project calm to a nation rattled by a string of high-profile violent incidents in recent weeks, including two attacks targeting civilians that were carried out by young men who had sought asylum in Germany.

On July 18, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan wounded several people with an axe on a train near the town of Würzburg before being killed by police. Less than a week later, a Syrian man who had been denied asylum blew himself up in a wine bar near a music venue, injuring 15. Both men are reported to have admired, or claimed allegiance with, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.  

Such attacks, said Ms. Merkel, were “shocking and depressing,” but not an indication that the government has been overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. She called it “completely irrelevant” whether the attackers had entered the country before or after the open-door asylum policy took effect in September 2015.

The men responsible, said Merkel, “have slapped in the face the country that took them in,” according to a translation of her remarks by Deutsche Welles.

“It’s a slap in the face of all the other refugees who actually come to our shores to flee disaster and war after having lost everything elsewhere,” she added.

Yet she also laid out a nine-point plan to boost security and intelligence, acknowledging that the spate of recent attacks in Europe "tests our way of life, our understanding of freedom and democracy." 

Polls of public opinion taken in the wake of the attacks show that a majority of Germans – some 57 percent – believe that the refugee policy has failed, while more than half say the chancellor does not take public concerns seriously enough, reported The Washington Post.

Joachim Herrmann, interior minister of Bavaria – where the two attacks had taken place and where migrants tend to enter – repeated his long-standing objection to the policy before Mrs. Merkel’s address on Thursday, saying Germany should end “uncontrolled entry into the country,” according to The New York Times.

But as The Christian Science Monitor noted this week, Germans seem more resistant to appeals for a strong military response, dramatic change of course, than many of their fellow Europeans:

Despite populist attempts to gain political footing over a threat they say was magnified by Chancellor Merkel’s ‘open door’ refugee policy – and anger by some Germans who were skeptical about the policy – many say that she might actually gain politically rather than lose after the attacks, as might be expected.

“I think there’s a wide consensus among German political parties and politicians and the public that this kind of language of revenge or annihilation of militant threats is not what Germans would want to hear or what expresses their attitudes best,” says Paul Nolte, a German historian who's written extensively about Merkel.

Instead, politicians' responses have focused on improving border security or beefing up intelligence, the Monitor notes. 

More than 1 million migrants entered Germany last year. But the influx of asylum seekers has slowed drastically, falling from upward of 200,000 people per month in late 2015 to 16,300 in June, according to officials in the interior ministry. 

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