Case #2198

Wir Schaffen Das: Angela Merkel and Germany’s Response to the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Publication Date: November 16, 2020
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On August 24, 2015, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, and Francois Hollande, president of France, met in Berlin to discuss solutions to what had become known as the European refugee crisis. The vast influx of refugees was the result of thousands from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq leaving their war torn countries to travel across the Mediterranean Sea or overland to seek refuge in European Union (EU) countries. The crisis had been building since the beginning of the year, leaving some countries—particularly those at the EU borders—overwhelmed with refugees. 

In the meantime the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF), Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, announced it had ratified an order suspending the Dublin convention, a 1990 protocol which forced refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU member country in which they set foot. “Germany will become the member state responsible for processing their claims,” a government statement said of the refugees, largely from Syria.

As a result, Germany quickly became the first-choice destination for Syrians.  Word of Merkel’s suspension of the Dublin protocol spread quickly among refugees—Syrian and otherwise—who were heading to the EU or already waiting in camps. Indeed, Hungary’s ambassador to Germany, Peter Györkös, later claimed that on August 26, Serbian police found thousands of discarded passports on their side of the border. “From that moment on, every refugee was a Syrian,” he told The Guardian. 

Five days later on August 31, at a Federal Press news conference in Berlin hosted by the country’s journalists, Merkel delivered prepared remarks:

. . . Fortunately, most of us [have not experienced] the state of complete exhaustion [from being] on the run, combined with fear for our own life or the [lives] of children or partners. . . .That is why we have to apply some clear principles when dealing with people who come to us now. 

Merkel went on to frankly address the challenges ahead:

We are facing a major national task . . . And this will be a key challenge, not just for days or months, but . . . for a long time. German thoroughness is great, but German flexibility is now needed. There are many examples of how we have shown that we are able to do this. I want to remind you of the bank bailout. In the international financial crisis, the federal government and the federal states together implemented the necessary laws within a few days. . . . . I want to remind you of the natural disasters that we—the federal government, the states and the municipalities—have always dealt with resolutely and in a united manner. . . . The examples from the past show us that whenever it matters, we—the federal government, the states and the municipalities—are able to do the right thing and the necessary thing. . . .

Merkel then described the steps her government was planning to take: open more initial reception centers to speed up asylum application processing, make more federal properties available for state and municipal use, and foster better cooperation between federal and state governments to relax building regulations that slowed construction of housing for refugees. She also noted that the federal government was in the process of soliciting feedback and ideas from municipalities and the states on how the three levels of government could better work together. “The whole thing will then have to result in a legislative initiative in which we will temporarily abolish such standards that prevent us from doing what is necessary and make deviations possible so that we can react quickly,” she said.

She also discussed the allocation of costs, noting that responsibilities and funds for processing and settling asylum-seekers needed to be fairly distributed. “We will list: who does what? What are the municipalities doing? What are the [federal states] doing? What does the federal government do? Then the federal government will not oppose a fair distribution of costs. On the contrary: We will do more than we have done so far.”

Finally, Merkel noted that Germany needed to do more to integrate refugees into their new communities, pointing to a need for teachers who could teach German to the new arrivals while conceding that training such teachers typically took years. She also raised the issues of long-term housing and jobs for refugees noting that representatives of the Federal Employment Agency should be located in every initial reception facility. “We are working towards these things,” she said.

Merkel concluded her remarks:

Germany is a strong country. The motive with which we approach these things must be: Wir haben so vieles geschafft—wir schaffen das: “Wherever something stands in our way, it has to be overcome . . . .The federal government will do everything in its power—together with the federal states, together with the municipalities—to achieve exactly this.”

The press later characterized one phrase in Merkel’s statement—wir schaffen das—translated to “We’ve gotten so much done already—we can do this”—as a “defiant response” to the migration crisis. But a reporter noted that the phrase’s actual meaning implied something closer to “we will manage the situation because we have no other choice.” 

The case goes on to detail Germany’s history of integrating immigrants and refugees, and the events leading up to her decision to suspend the Dublin Protocol. Merkel’s government acknowledges that the result of the suspension will likely be an influx of over 1 million refugees, and the case describes the processes implemented by federal, state and local governments to register, process, settle and ultimately integrate the refugees. 

Learning Objectives:
This case comes with two teaching plans. Teaching plan 1 focuses on policy decision-making, delivery, and communications, as well as their integration with ethical concerns. Teaching plan 2 is focused on risk management.

Policy delivery and implementation

This teaching case poses a seemingly simple question: was Merkel’s implementation of her policy decision to suspend the Dublin Protocol successful? The case allows students to consider the short- and long-term political, moral, economic, and humanitarian impact of Merkel’s decision, the obstacles to policy delivery, and the likelihood that the country’s efforts would lead to successful integration of the refugees into German society. Students are asked to consider the roles of the federal, state, and local governments as well as the myriad stakeholders—German citizens, the refugees, European Union countries, NGOs, volunteers, and the like—while assessing the policy delivery scheme.

After analyzing and discussing the case, students should be able to:

  • Incorporate considerations of centralization versus decentralization into their assessment about policy decision-making.
  • Incorporate considerations of centralization versus decentralization into their assessment about policy delivery.
  • Think critically about policy communications.
  • Integrate ethical concerns with other criteria for policy delivery and design.

Risk Management

After analyzing and discussing the case, students should be able to:

  • Understand the role of risk as it relates to policy execution and how to identify, assess, monitor, and mitigate risks.
  • Learn and apply a basic tool for assessing risks to successful execution of policy objectives.
  • Understand the importance and limitations of risk mitigation measures.


Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Author(s):
Laura Winig
Faculty Leads:
Eric Brien Rosenbach
Pages (incl. exhibits):
Funding Source:
Joseph B. Tompkins, Jr. Fund for Case Study and Research