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3 ways Germany's migration crisis is different this time around

BERLIN - This year, the number of refugees arriving to Germany is almost as high as it was in 2015 and 2016 - when the government nearly fell apart over it.

When civil war broke out in Syria, refugees came in masses to Europe. Between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, tens of thousands arrived in Germany. Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel said, " Wir schaffen das " - "We got this." Merkel's government allowed migrants to enter Germany even though, under the EU's framework, other countries in the bloc would also have been responsible for them. The massive influx led to friction both within Germany and between European capitals.

Germany saw nearly 1.2 million applications for asylum in 2015 and 2016. At first, many Germans applauded the Syrians arriving at train stations and offered support - coining the term Willkommenskultur. But as cities and towns were overwhelmed, with gyms and container villages being set up to house the influx of refugees, the political mood soon soured.

Fast-forward to 2022: The number of refugees from Ukraine amounted to just more than 1 million people receiving temporary protection. Add to that around 214,000 applications by asylum-seekers with no connection to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the German interior ministry. That means that this year, more people have sought refuge in Germany than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

But things are different this time around. While authorities on the ground still fear being overwhelmed, the situation has changed, including how EU countries handle refugees. Here are three key points:

1. Refugees from Ukraine form a distinct category

First of all, Germany is not going it alone now, as the EU has activated the so-called Temporary Protection Directive for refugees from Ukraine. This means that they automatically receive temporary asylum status and can claim social benefits in any EU country, spreading the burden across countries in the bloc.

Within Germany, a new distribution system known as "FREE," in place since July, considers family ties and other factors. This has created a steering effect, as distribution can be linked and tracked. Furthermore, when able to privately organize accommodation themselves, refugees from Ukraine may choose where to settle. Only if they apply for social welfare or housing may they be allocated throughout Germany like other refugees.

Almost three-quarters of refugees from Ukraine live in private apartments and houses, according to the study "Refugees from Ukraine in Germany" (conducted between August and October this year). Of these, around 25 percent live with relatives or friends in Germany. Only 9 percent live in shared accommodation for refugees.

In contrast, refugees not coming from Ukraine are spread among German states via the so-called "EASY" system. After an initial period at regional reception centers, migrants are distributed at random to municipalities across the country.

That system does not take individual preferences into account; it only grants a higher probability of assigning refugees to facilities in the same region if family members have been registered in the region - and if there is capacity.

2. Not all cities and towns are overwhelmed - yet

"Reception capacities are exhausted in many places, tent shelters and gymnasiums already have to be used," Burkhard Jung, the mayor of Leipzig and vice president of the German Association of Cities, said in November.

Plenty of déjà vu with 2015 on this front.

"We don't know a concrete number, but we are getting feedback from very many federal states that the municipalities are reaching their limits," Alexander Handschuh, a spokesperson for the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, confirmed earlier this month. He pointed out that large cities such as Berlin or Munich are more popular among refugees from Ukraine - a trend that is ongoing.

"Meanwhile, however, heavy burdens are being reported from all over Germany," Handschuh added.

While many refugees from Ukraine were initially welcomed into private accommodation "with overwhelming willingness to help," this is becoming increasingly difficult the longer the war continues. Thus, German municipalities are now calling for help from the federal government, demanding full reimbursement for the costs of handling refugees and calling for higher reception capacity at the regional level.

Migration researcher Hannes Schammann of the University of Hildesheim says he is hearing mixed signals from local authorities. "There are isolated hot spots where we have this situation with gymnasiums and the like. But there are also municipalities where this can still be managed quite well," Schammann told POLITICO.

The newly arriving refugees are not the problem, he believes. Rather, he said, the issue is German bureaucracy, as the distribution system itself causes delays and uncertainty.

3. Although the situation is tense, it is not surprising

Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) confirmed that migration pressure is currently "increasing significantly" not only in Germany, but also at the EU's external borders. "Although the numbers have increased every year ... the current influx of arrivals has a higher dynamic compared to previous years," it said. As to why, the BAMF cited a catch-up effect after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, and economic and political situations in transit states such as Turkey, Tunisia and Libya.

Yet, the number of refugees now arriving from countries other than Ukraine is within the expected range, Schammann said. This becomes a problem, however, when that flow comes up against any uneven distribution of Ukrainian refugees.

In addition, many municipalities held on to both physical and policy infrastructure built up during the situation in 2015 and 2016. "Those who maintained it did quite well," Schammann pointed out.

The main countries of origin for asylum-seekers besides Ukraine continue to be Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iraq - as in previous years. "There are currently no noticeable developments in individual countries of origin," a spokesperson from the interior ministry told POLITICO. Nevertheless, he confirmed a somewhat tense situation in terms of the ability to receive refugees.

Schammann expects the debate to heat up because of bottlenecks that may arise due to the distribution of refugees already in Germany. He described it as a difficult situation and definitely a source of strain on the system. "But it's not collapsing. It will continue to function regardless," he said.

Without a magic crystal ball, the ministry declined to provide an outlook for the months to come.

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