The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the CEAS

Arab Spring and Arab Winter

The 2010 saw the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring” in Tunisia.  This series of political uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world toppled several governments—Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt—and led to reforms in other countries.  However, most of the changes that took place as a result of the Arab Spring were short-lived.  Libya, Yemen, and Syria in particular have broken down into failed states.[1]  Egypt’s government commits many of the abuses that made the previous regime the target of revolution in 2011.  In Syria, the situation has become especially dire.  When Arab Spring protests reached Syria in 2011, they became violent quickly.  Soon, the situation devolved into civil war.  However, there is no clear rebel army.  Rather, multiple factions with the support of different nations and characterized by varying levels of religious extremism are all battling one another.  For normal Syrians, the war has been catastrophic, with millions displaced as refugees.  An Al Jazeera report from March of 2015 estimated that 10.9 million people—half of Syria’s population—had been displaced, 3.8 million of them refugees and the other 7.1 million displaced within Syria.[2]

Immigration trends in Germany, 2011-2015

See: Das Bundesamt in Zahlen (The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Numbers), 2015       

The number of asylum-seekers who came to Germany in 2011 was similar to the number who came in 2010, and it was less than the number of refugees who came in 2003.[3]  From 2011, however, the number of refugees coming into Germany per year steadily increased from 2012 to 2014.  Between 2012 and 2013, the number increased by approximately 45,000, to 109,580.  In the next year, the number of incoming refugees increased to 173.072.  Then, in 2015, the number increased to 441.899.[4]

Syrian refugees do not account for all of these increases.  In fact, Syria only became the number one country of origin for refugees in Germany in 2014.  In 2013, refugees leaving Russia outnumbered Syrian refugees.  This was likely due, in part, to the conflict in Crimea.  Additionally, the 11,851 recorded Syrian refugees in 2013 outnumbered recorded Serbian refugees by only 392 persons.[5]  Even in 2015, Syrians made up only 35 percent of the refugees that came into Germany.   The current refugee crisis in Germany cannot, therefore, be understood simply as a Syrian refugee crisis.

Changes in European and German Refugee Policy, 2011-2015

German refugee policy certainly has its own special characteristics.  However, it must be understood in the context of the refugee policy espoused by the European Union as a whole, the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).  Directive 2011/95/EU clarified the criteria for determining whether a third-country national or stateless person qualified for asylum.  This directive, published in December of 2011, also made several provisions that were to be common to all EU member states.  The European Union’s recognition of the right to asylum for persecuted individuals echoes that of the Grundgesetz, with its unqualified declaration in Article 13: “Member States shall grant refugee status to a third-country national or a stateless person who qualifies as a refugee in accordance with Chapters II and III.”[6]  According to chapters two and three of this directive, people at risk of persecution or serious harm, whose governments either perpetrate or fail to protect against these, qualify as refugees.[7]

Since Directive 2011/95/EU replaced the Council of the European Union’s 2004’s Council Directive 2004/83/EC on the minimum standards for qualification of individuals as refugees, it contained and reaffirmed much of the content of the latter document.  The 2008 version of Germany’s Asylum Procedure Act adopted Council Directive 2004/83/EC as national law.[8]  Likewise, post-2011 editions of the Asylum Procedure Act included Directive 2011/95/EU as part of German national law.[9]

In recent years, Germany and the European Union have been making a near-constant effort to redefine and improve their laws and resolutions on asylum-seekers and how to accommodate them.  The Asylum Procedure Act has been amended multiple times, and in 2013 the European Union issued two more directives, 2013/32/EU and 2013/33/EU.[10]  Both of these directives recast previous council directives in an effort to adapt to the evolving migrant situation in Europe.  The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) cites these directives (as well as 2011/95/EU) in its explanation of the Common European Asylum System.[11]

One notable feature of broad European attitudes (and therefore German attitudes) toward refugee policy is its emphasis on individuals.  Each person seeking asylum must individually qualify for refugee status in order to receive protection.  This is true in theory; however, in practice, it has placed an enormous burden on the bureaucracies of states providing asylum to large numbers of people.  Such a large wave of immigrants arrived in Germany in late 2015


“Wir Schaffen Das”—the Syrian Refugee Crisis

On August 31, 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel was at a press conference speaking on the refugee crisis taking Europe to a breaking point.  Referring to the challenges ahead and the responsibility Germany would take on to help the refugees, Merkel famously said three words: wir schaffen das![12]  Roughly translated, “we can do it.”  September 5, 2015, per an agreement between Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Chancellor Werner Faymann of Austria, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, Germany and Austria opened their borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees then in Hungary.

The situation is especially difficult for several reasons.  Even if the Syrian conflict were to end tomorrow, the rebuilding process would be long, and the healing process longer.  Many refugees will be unable to return to their homes and many others will likely have reason not to return, making repatriation impossible for the foreseeable future.  Meanwhile, many Syrian refugees in Germany speak no German and face a significant number of barriers to success.  Even as the numbers of incoming refugees have decreased, challenges still face Germany.  In the summer of 2016, while I was in Bavaria, the German government introduced integration laws aimed at alleviating cultural tensions between refugees from the Arab world and German citizens.  It mandated integration courses for migrants from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Iran, and Iraq.  Additionally, German language courses are now required.  New laws pertaining to refugees have also emphasized self-sufficiency, including a path to employment for refugees.[13]

[1]“The Arab Winter,” The Economist, January 9, 2016, accessed December 9, 2016,

[2] Diana Al Rifai and Mohammed Haddad, “What’s Left of Syria?” Aljazeera, March 17, 2017.
[3] BAMF, Das Bundesamt in Zahlen, 2015: Asyl, 11.  Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge,
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] European Union, Directive 2011/95/EU, Article 13.
[7] European Union, Directive 2011/95/EU, Chapters II and III.
[8] Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Asylum Procedure Act, version promulgated September 2, 2008.
[9] Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Asylum Procedure Act, version promulgated September 2, 2008 with amendments up to 2014.
[10] European Union, Directives 2013/32/EU and 2013/33/EU, June 26, 2013.
[11]“BAMF – Bundesamt Für Migration Und Flüchtlinge – The Common European Asylum System – CEAS.” October 1, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2016.
[12] Julian Heißler, “Merkels Drei Groβe Kleine Worte: Ein Jahr ‘Wir Schaffen Das,’”  August 31, 2016.  Accessed October 10, 2016
[13]“Germany Passes Historic Law on Refugee Integration”,, July 8, 2016.