BERLIN — German officials said Friday that nearly a third of all asylum seekers arriving in Germany and claiming to be Syrian in fact come from other nations, even as Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière called on European nations to take radical new steps to curb the region’s refugee crisis.
So far this year, Germany has received 527,000 asylum seekers — more than any other nation in Europe. Tobias Plate, an Interior Ministry spokesman, acknowledged estimates Friday that roughly 30 percent of asylum seekers who claim to be from Syria are making erroneous claims, and come from other countries instead. Because of the civil war in that country, roughly 87 percent of Syrians are successfully winning asylum in Germany.
Plate said that rather than a “concrete statistic,” the number was an estimate based on the perceptions of authorities on the ground, including the German Federal Police, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and Frontex, Europe’s border agency.
“It is an indication,” he said at a news conference in Berlin, of how hard it is to know the true nationalities of asylum seekers, many of whom arrive without passports.
In an interview Friday with The Washington Post, de Maizière — a longtime ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel and one of the key officials dealing with the refugee crisis in Germany — said Europe needs to enact sweeping changes to its refugee system. He added that German attempts to aid refugees had been misinterpreted by migrants in far-flung nations such as Afghanistan as a green light to come to Europe.
That, he said, needs to change.
“We cannot close Europe,” he said. But, he added, “we cannot open Europe totally for millions and millions of poor people in the world or even for all of those coming from conflict zones. Impossible.”
Germany is moving to slash cash benefits for asylum seekers, instead offering in-kind assistance such as food. De Maizière said it will take “years” before refugees in Germany are able to bring close family members into the country.
“The number is too big,” he said. “It has to be checked.”
To date, its welcoming policies and lucrative benefits have made Germany by far the biggest destination for refugees coming to Europe, a situation some European leaders have said Berlin brought on itself by adopting such a generous stance. To reduce the strain on Germany, de Maizière called for European Union countries to adopt minimum and maximum benefit standards so that no single country becomes an outsize draw.
Such a plan, however, is certain to face resistance in nations that have taken a hard line against refugees, such as Hungary and Slovakia.
“We have to find a common European solution,” he said. “In the end, we would need really nearly to have the same social benefits.”
On Thursday, de Maizière made headlines by suggesting that the crisis had gotten “out of control” after Merkel’s decision this month to allow in tens of thousands of refugees who had been barred by Hungary from going deeper into Europe. Leading German media outlets, including Spiegel Online and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, interpreted the statement as de Maizière indirectly criticizing Merkel’s move.
On Friday, however, he insisted that Merkel had not made “a mistake” by opening Germany’s border but had simply made a humanitarian gesture in response to the “horrible pictures” emanating from Hungary. But he did say that her decision — as well as his own statement in August that Germany would probably receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year — had had an “unintended side effect” of sending a message to migrants that “they can all come.”
“There is a dilemma,” he added. “There is a domestic public and an international public, and all domestic press conferences, speeches will be misused abroad.”
He said, for instance, that his own estimate of 800,000 asylum seekers was wrongly interpreted as an invitation “to please hurry up, because after the 800,000, then the door is closed. So it was a huge pull effect.”
On Friday, de Maizière, a former top negotiator on German reunification, also reiterated a plan he fielded this month that goes beyond the one approved this week to redistribute 120,000 asylum seekers arriving in Greece to nations in the E.U. De Maizière called for a “generous” new quota for the total number of refugees allowed into Europe, above which European nations would simply send refugees to secure camps in the Middle East and Africa.
He suggested that 500,000 to 1 million refugees could be safely airlifted to Europe directly from conflict zones. He said French officials had warmed to his idea.
Other nations, particularly Britain, have also endorsed the notion of bringing refugees directly from the Middle East. But the sheer numbers de Maizière is proposing — along with a plan for all E.U. nations to share in resettling them — is likely to face strong opposition in several countries.