TRÖGLITZ, Germany — As Europe confronts a rapidly escalating migration crisis driven by war, persecution and poverty in an arc of strife from West Africa to Afghanistan, even high-level European officials are beginning to admit the obvious.
The region’s refugee management system is broken.
Globally, the world is witnessing a momentous period of instability and conflict that has produced what the United Nations now describes as the largest pool of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons since the ravages of World War II. In Western Europe, countries are dealing with the biggest wave of asylum-seekers and refugees since the 1990s, when war in the former Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a massive migration west.
As a new crisis develops, the nations of Europe appear overwhelmed, belatedly scrambling to plug the gaping holes in their asylum system and contain what has become a full-blown humanitarian emergency.
The most lethal gaps may be on the front lines in Italy, where, critics say, Rome ended a costly but effective naval rescue operation in November, leaving in place a much reduced pan-European effort that has failed to prevent a rapidly climbing death toll in the Mediterranean. The single worst migrant disaster in the region — the capsizing of a ship Sunday in which up to 850 people drowned — has already made April the deadliest month yet of the crisis.
But the problems run far deeper than the harrowing images of shipwrecks and body bags on European docks. As the number of asylum applicants soars, a European system put in place over decades to process, house and absorb people fleeing war and persecution is unraveling.
This is evident in Greece, where reception centers are so horrific that a European court ruled that asylum-seekers found escaping the country could not be sent back. Human rights groups cite rampant refugee abuse in Bulgaria. And asylum-processing times in Western Europe are stretching far beyond the six months mandated by European Union law, leaving many people stranded in a legal limbo. (The United Nations defines an asylum-seeker as someone who says he or she is a refugee but whose claim hasn’t been accepted.)
Hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers are streaming through Europe’s porous borders, decamping from entry nations such as Italy to countries such as Germany, where they are creating new challenges and tensions. Under E.U. law, asylum-seekers are mandated to stay in the countries they first entered to await processing. But as that system breaks down, Germany — Europe’s largest economy, hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean — is straining to manage the largest number of asylum-seekers in the industrialized world.
Germany has already exhausted its ability to house arriving migrants in its big cities, turning now to insular communities like this village of eyelid-windowed houses in the old communist east that once survived off Adolf Hitler’s coal factories. Assailants recently set fire to a proposed refugee center here, bringing back memories from the early 1990s, when a wave of attacks hit such centers and houses for foreign workers.
“They don’t belong here,” grumbled Ronny Seyfert, a 39-year-old part-time gardener, as he nursed a beer outside a run-down supermarket last week.
After coming under blistering criticism following Sunday’s deadly sinking, Europe appears to have been spurred to a measure of action. On Thursday, E.U. leaders will gather for an emergency summit, considering a 10-point plan that could ramp up search-and-rescue efforts and begin to address other sweeping system flaws.
But there remains resistance to plans that would lead to large-scale absorption of asylum-seekers, and activists fear that the region may yet revert to the tough positions embraced during the last major wave of migrants.
In that crisis, almost 700,000 asylum-seekers washed over Europe in 1992. Coming largely by land via Turkey and through the collapsing borders in the Balkans and other eastern portions of the continent, the bulk of arrivals then were Eastern Europeans, but there were also Kurds, Iranians, Africans, Sri Lankans and others. So great was the wave that countries across the region tightened their asylum laws, making it more difficult to win legal status.
Critics now say E.U. officials are less focused on aiding the new arrivals than finding ways to fight migrant trafficking at its roots in Libya — where a collapse of law and order has given rise to new smuggling routes from trouble spots in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Migration experts fear that European efforts now being considered — including a planned operation to destroy fleets of smuggler ships — could trap the estimated 1 million potential migrants bottlenecked on the coast of a lawless, dangerous Libya.
“You cannot just close off the Mediterranean,” said Madeline Garlick, a former official with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and a refugee expert at the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels.
And yet, politicians in the region are, to varying degrees, confronting a public torn between being openhearted and wanting to close off entry for migrants. A good number of the newcomers are fleeing civil war in Syria or attacks by armed groups from South Sudan to Nigeria. But a large portion, officials say, are also arriving for economic reasons, rolling the dice that appeals processes may grant them an opportunity to build an immigrant life in some of the richest nations in the world.
More than any other nation in the region, Germany is grappling with the influx, suggesting the haphazard way the continent is managing the crisis.
This nation of 82 million absorbed more asylum-seekers than any other in the region last year,sheltering 173,000. By comparison, the United States, with nearly four times the population, received an estimated 121,200 asylum claims in 2014, mostly from Mexico and countries in Central America. Last month alone, Germany saw 28,681 new applicants — a 192 percent surge over the same period last year.
The rising tide of asylum-seekers is testing this nation, where guilt from World War II-era atrocities has fueled a push by some to roll out the welcome mat to the newcomers, even as others openly reject them.
Germany, under E.U. rules, could return asylum-seekers to their points of entry — chiefly, Italy — but has largely chosen not to exercise that right given the refugee crisis already unfolding in economically challenged southern European nations. Still, officials here are highly critical of other nations in Europe that are offering little help to the new arrivals.
“The European asylum system doesn’t work,” bluntly said Germany’s immigration commissioner, Aydan Özoguz, who has received death threats in Germany for her advocacy of refugee rights. “Some countries are doing very little. We are one of the richest countries and we want to help, but it’s not okay that Germany, Sweden and France are taking 50 percent of the refugees while other countries do nothing.”
So many asylum-seekers are coming that Germany has now been forced to find accommodations for them in tiny communities like Tröglitz, nestled in an area that has become the epicenter of an anti-immigrant movement known as Pegida.
“If it’s only black Africans, there is a primary school and a kindergarten [nearby], and some people would be afraid of that,” complained Steffen Thiel, a local activist from the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany who helped organize a series of protests against plans to house refugees here.
Dozens of residents joined those protests, ultimately leading the mayor, who supported plans for a refugee center in town, to resign in March. A week later, fire erupted in the yellow apartment building that was being turned into a refugee home — an incident police are treating as arson.
Some, like Margit Korthals, a 59-year-old hotelier here, did not mourn the delay in the refugees’ arrival. “They have a completely different mentality, not to speak of their faith,” she said. She fretted, though, that local resistance was giving Tröglitz a bad reputation. “ ‘What do you have to say for your Nazi town?’ ” she said a hotel guest recently asked her.
Yet tensions are spiking over asylum-seekers nationwide. Last year, German rights groups say, there were significant increases in anti-immigrant attacks, including 35 incidents of arson at refugee centers. There are also problems with security and oversight at centers meant to shelter asylum-seekers. In September, for instance, amateur video and photographs emerged showing guards in a North Rhine-Westphalia refugee center abusing the occupants, including pressing a foot on the neck of one man while he was on the floor, images reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse in Iraq.
Yet those realities have rubbed up against the far more embracive stance of many Germans, who have seen it as something of a national duty to help the suffering newcomers. If nations such as Lebanon can accept millions of refugees, surely, advocates here argue, Europe’s economic powerhouse can absorb a few hundred thousand.
A few Germans have gone as far as inviting asylum-seekers to live in their houses as the newly arrived foreigners await application assessments that can take several months or longer.
“Germany was responsible for creating so many refugees” in World War II, said Markus Nierth, the former mayor of Tröglitz and a longtime Protestant missionary. “Now it is upon us to take responsibility for the refugees coming in this new great wave.”
But even Nierth concedes that the refugee crisis is presenting towns like Tröglitz and surrounding communities with something that locals, used to quiet and homogenous village life, are not accustomed to.
Down a narrow street in the neighboring town of Hohenmölsen, past a grouping of timbered, gingerbread-like houses, a local minister, Johannes Rohr, jumped out of his car last week accompanied by two Syrian asylum-seekers. The couple — Abed Alnaeb, 29, and his girlfriend, Suzi al Husseini, 29 — had arrived three weeks earlier, moving into a former army barracks freshly converted into a boarding house for 60 asylum-seekers from myriad nations.
Together, the three of them entered a church recreational center where gray-haired German ladies were sipping tea out of porcelain cups and grazing on rich butter cookies while cooing over photos of grandchildren. The women looked up, some furtively, as Rohr entered the room with the Syrians.
“Guten Tag,” said Alnaeb, a slight frog in his throat
The meeting was one of several being organized by volunteers and church groups seeking to “acclimate” locals to the new arrivals.
“Most have been very welcoming,” said Alnaeb, who studied German in Syria, where he worked as an architect before fleeing the civil war. They have been much kinder, at least, than in Greece, he said, where he and his girlfriend were kept for days in a cell with no working toilet. They eventually escaped Greece, he said, walking for weeks through forests before hiring smugglers to take them by car through Eastern Europe to Germany.
But it hasn’t all been rosy here, either. When the couple was on an introductory tour of the village after they arrived, one local leaned out of his car window and yelled an obscenity while tossing up his middle finger.
Under police escort for his safety, Alnaeb recently attended a prayer service for unity in Tröglitz after the arson there. Afterward, a crowd of Germans gathered around him, he said, pelting him with questions. One man aggressively barked: “How do you ever hope to adapt to our country? Don’t you know how hard it is to speak German?”
Drawing on his years of language lessons, Alnaeb replied to the questioner in working German — a response that brought a round of applause from other bystanders.
“There will always be people not happy that we are here,” Alnaeb said. “But I think about the ones who do. We are very grateful to them.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.