While the world is struggling to come to terms with the new US President, one person has emerged like his moral antipode — Angela Merkel. One year ago, Der Spiegel depicted the German Chancellor with a blue-rimmed sari, “Mother Angela”, Saint Teresa of the refugees. Against Donald Trump’s proclaimed isolationalism and racism, she, who in her first statement reminded him of human dignity, appears all the more like an example of humanitarian politics.
However, this Merkel picture is misleading — and false. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 2016 has been the deadliest ever in the Mediterranean Sea. Tragic refugee casualties amount to 4,271 dead or missing. The truth is, Merkel doesn’t think the floating, bloated, perished bodies are her problem.
When last year, the world was amazed at the million sheltered in Germany, Merkel’s interior minister lobbied for ending an Italian life-saving mission. He considered it a “pull factor” for migration. The EU’s follow-up mission has been a defence, not a rescue operation.
What about Merkel’s efforts to convince other European countries to take in refugees? It looks like a do-gooder mission but is actually a selfish one. Upto 2015, for 10 years of her chancellorship, she fiercely opposed a refugee quota. She upheld an EU asylum agreement designed by Germans to keep refugees out of Germany. It was up to Italy, Greece, Hungary and Spain to feed and register those seeking protection. Merkel never stepped in to help, instead forcing the Southern countries into severe austerity during the euro crisis. It’s no surprise her pleas for a refugee quota are now brushed off by many EU countries.
Nonetheless, her leading role in the EU refugee crisis earned her worldwide recognition. TIME Magazine elected her “Person of the Year 2015”. Karl Vick argued, taking in the refugees who marched on Budapest’s streets on 4 September, 2015, was: “the most open-hearted gesture of recent history.”
But you could also argue it was a rational one. That night, her alternative — keeping the borders closed — could have had a human toll. Hungary’s President Victor Orbán threatened to stop the rioters at all costs. The refugee influx had swollen so much, it threatened to destabilise the European periphery. About 10 years ago, the region in ex-Yugoslavia was the scene of the deadliest ethnic clashes in Europe since the Second World War’s end. Wouldn’t unrest there have backfired on Merkel?
With her decision for “permeable borders”, she offered her country as an “overfall basin”, allowing herself time to work out a European solution. Merkel exchanged one evil — bloodshed on the Balkans — with another: Unrest in her own population. Since last summer, over a 1,000 attacks on asylum seekers and refugee homes have been counted. Right-wing populists from the “Alternative für Deutschland”, which suggested using weapons to stop refugees at the borders, have entered 11 state parliaments. The party even beat Merkel’s conservative CDU in her own home state.
The new right-wing force could threaten Merkel’s reelection if she runs again. Her reaction has been adoption. She’s introduced stricter asylum laws, facilitated deportations of rejected refugees and restricted visas for wives and children of those recognised. Her coalition declared Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia “safe countries”, ending their citizens’ chances of being granted asylum, although leaked documents of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees show many marginalised groups are still persecuted there.
Abroad, Merkel’s tried to pass the buck to Turkey which prevents refugees from entering Europe. In return, the EU pays six billion Euros. Merkel never flinched over Erdogan’s autocratic backlash, considering reintroducing the death penalty for July’s rebels. Human rights reports also show refugees face severe police violence and detention in Turkey.
It was a seemingly effective deal: It shut down the Greece-Balkan-route. In reality, the crowds were redirected. They now take the deadlier Central Mediterranean route.