Migration researchers in an interview: “This refugee crisis will be bigger than 2015”

Putin’s attacks on Ukraine plunge the EU into a historic refugee crisis. Together with the people who enter via the Balkan route, Germany is facing a unique humanitarian challenge this winter, says migration researcher Knaus Increased border controls, as demanded by the FDP and Union, are bogus politics and would not lead to fewer refugees, but to more violence and pushbacks. The only solution is therefore the renewal of the EU-Turkey deal, explains Knaus in an interview. Many of the refugees from Ukraine who came to us shortly after the outbreak of war have already returned to Ukraine. After Putin’s recent attacks on Kyiv and other cities, will more Ukrainians come to Germany again?

Gerald Knaus is an Austrian migration researcher and co-founder and chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank.

(Photo: picture alliance/dpa)

Gerald Knaus: That is the Kremlin’s clear goal. It was discussed as a strategy on Russian television for weeks and is now being implemented by the army every day: terror against civilians and the destruction of infrastructure and energy supply are intended to set in motion a new refugee movement. In the Chechen war, in Syria, in eastern Ukraine, it was always an effect of Putin’s Russian warfare to drive away large numbers of people. So far, most of the displaced people have stayed in Ukraine. Since mid-April, many have also returned from the EU. But if life in cities becomes impossible because there is no longer heating, if city centers are terrorized by constant shelling or even weapons of mass destruction are used, then we have to be prepared for the fact that the number of those who flee will increase again this winter can be big.

As things stand at present, could Germany manage that? Here, too, people have to use electricity and gas sparingly. How will the Germans react when more Ukrainians come to us again?

Since February, the humanitarian crisis has reminded me of the blockade of West Berlin under Stalin, which led to the Berlin Airlift. An exceptional situation in which the humanitarian is of paramount geopolitical importance. We are talking about a refugee crisis of historic proportions. A humanitarian state of emergency that has not existed in Europe since the 1940s. However, many more refugees were already expected in the EU in February and March because many did not count on the success of the Ukrainian military. In recent months, the feeling has crept in that the peak of the crisis is behind us. Also because many millions of Ukrainians have returned to their homeland. But in fact, so far more people have found shelter in Germany than in the record year 2015. The crisis is not behind us, it could drastically worsen again.

In what way?

The cause of flight is Putin’s war. The best way to combat the causes of flight is therefore to support Ukraine, both financially and militarily. We see that the Ukrainian women who come to us want to return to their homeland as soon as possible. But over the winter, more women and children may need to be accommodated in the EU. The financial resources for this must also be made available at all levels. It is also important to help Ukraine support internally displaced people in the country so that they can stay there.

How could you do that?

So far, Poland and the Czech Republic have taken in three times more Ukrainians per capita than Germany. It would make sense to help cities and communities there so that people can stay. At the same time, you have to help host families, also in Germany, as is happening in Great Britain. Green politician Erik Marquart has proposed 500 euros a month. In order to rebuild the infrastructure in Ukraine, the frozen Russian central bank currencies should be confiscated now. Hyperinflation must not occur there either.

Should the federal government help the states and municipalities more financially?

Yes. And one way to do that is to help households that are hosting people. Very many Ukrainians are housed privately with families. When energy costs rise, even the well-meaning could be stretched. But if all Ukrainians who are housed privately have to be housed by counties or cities, then the crisis would worsen enormously. It’s about surviving this winter. If Ukraine continues to reclaim territory, then it can be assumed that a large number of Ukrainians can return in the spring. But this winter will be a unique humanitarian challenge. It will be a test. Putin is counting on the Europeans not passing it. But he was wrong before about the EU, including Germany. We have to show that he’s wrong again.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser also expressed concern last week about the increasing number of refugees on the Balkan route. How big is the increase that we see there?

We have a high number of asylum applications in Austria this year. We also have a slightly higher number of asylum applications in Germany than last year, about the same as in 2018. These are numbers that are important because we have the Ukraine crisis. Taken by itself, this is no comparison with 2015. This is mainly due to the fact that only a few people came to the EU from Turkey via Greece this year and last year. In 2015, one million people came to Greece from Turkey in twelve months, who immediately moved on to Central Europe. So far this year there have been 12,000. There are two groups on the route to Germany. On the one hand there are many who are coming to Germany today and have often been in other countries in Southeastern Europe, such as Greece, for years. Since the Balkan route empties. At the beginning of 2020 there were still 40,000 people on the Greek islands, today there are 3,000. On the mainland there were over 70,000, today there are 30,000. Many have moved on. However, this also means that this migration through south-eastern Europe will soon decrease. Because there just aren’t that many anymore.

And the second group?

The second group are people who enter Serbia without a visa. You can put pressure on Serbia to change its visa regime. Better controls can also be used to ensure that Indians and Tunisians do not enter via Serbia and then reach Germany via Hungary, as has been the case in recent months. All of this is especially challenging because these people are added to the much larger number of Ukrainians. But I don’t think Germany will be very concerned with the Balkan route in the next six months. In winter, the number of people coming from Southeastern Europe will fall sharply and will be very small compared to Ukrainians.

So you don’t share the statement by the FDP and Union, who claim that a new refugee crisis is looming in Germany?

We are already in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis since the 1940s. But 10 out of 11 to whom Germany has offered protection this year are Ukrainians. We have a war that has driven a third of the population from their homes in Ukraine. That could continue into the winter and is a crisis of historic proportions. This is the refugee crisis we are in. However, the measures that were discussed in 2015, namely controls at Germany’s external borders, will not make it smaller in any way.

The FDP and the Union are now demanding exactly that, stronger border controls with Austria and the Czech Republic. How should that look? And will the federal government implement this requirement?

These controls at the border with Austria have been in place for years. They didn’t ensure that even one less person came to Germany. This is fake politics. Even checks at the border with the Czech Republic will not prevent Afghans from coming to Germany. This is not effective and has nothing to do with right or left. We know from the experience of the last few years that even with great brutality, which fortunately the German police do not display, it is difficult to stop people. In Croatia on the border with Bosnia or on the Hungary-Serbia border, where there is a fence, violence and pushbacks (Pushback is the pushing back of migrants from the borders of their destination or transit country, editor’s note.) exist, people have been coming to Austria for years anyway. I don’t see what even more drastic measures would then be used to prevent the refugees from going from Austria to Germany.

The FDP advocates that the EU-Turkey deal must be renewed because the deal no longer works. Do you agree?

Yes. Also because the way we are currently exercising control at the border with Turkey is based on illegal violence. Greece is doing pushbacks, this has been confirmed by the recently published report by the EU anti-fraud organization and by many media outlets for years. This type of border control is contrary to EU and international law. It would be in Europe’s interest for illegal migration with Turkey to be reduced without human rights violations. And that we continue to support the still enormous number of more than three and a half million Syrian refugees in Turkey, because we have an interest in their integration working. However, the situation in Turkey is currently deteriorating. The mood towards refugees, the pressure on them and their treatment are deteriorating. It is therefore urgently necessary, and I have been advocating this for two years, to enter into negotiations with the EU and Turkey. It is necessary to discuss how to implement again what was decided in 2016 and collapsed in 2020, in line with the values ​​of the European Convention on Human Rights. There has not been a single return from Greece to Turkey since 2020. It will be difficult, but there is no alternative.

What could a new deal look like?

It makes sense to continue to support the refugees in Turkey financially. The whole EU would have to bear that. But Turkey takes back those who come irregularly. There must then also be guarantees that those who are returned to Turkey will be treated in accordance with human rights. Otherwise it violates EU law. This would have to be negotiated in order to overcome the violence. Anything is better than the politics we currently have.

Vivian Micks spoke to Gerald Knaus

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