The flow of asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq has now overwhelmed even Germany, which on Sunday decided to temporarily close its border with Austria

Just last week, Germany was Europe's most vigorous champion of the refugees. But the numbers have swelled in recent days, with Germany taking in more than 50,000 in the past week alone. It expects to reach at least 800,000 by the end of the year — by far the most in the 28-nation EU.

Sunday's decision by Germany comes as EU leaders try to get member states to sign on to binding quotas ... and resettle 160,000 of the people who have made the trek to Europe.  EU countries are bitterly divided on the issue, with eastern European governments saying they don't have the resources to settle the refugees.   

Oliver Schmidtke

Oliver Schmidtke, an expert on migration and director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria.

Oliver Schmidtke, an expert on migration and director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, has been following the situation closely.

"So far, the EU asylum policy has largely failed. The refugee issue has proven to be a highly divisive test case for the solidarity among EU member-states," he says.

A native of Germany, he remembers how asylum seekers from Bosnia, Turkey and eastern Europe in the early 1990s became the target of extremist and xenophobic attacks there.

"As a German I have always been keenly aware of the alarming side of nationalism and social exclusion."

He spoke with CBC News about the challenges and opportunities ahead for Germany as it gets ready to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees.
 


What`s your reaction to Germany closing its border over the weekend, halting the Schengen agreement temporarily?

 This momentous decision is an indication of how difficult it is to live up to Chancellor Angela Merkel's declaration last week that there cannot be any upper limits to accepting refugees from Syria.

EUROPE-MIGRANTS/GERMANY

A young refugee waits to board a bus after arriving by train at Schoenefeld railway station south of Berlin on Sunday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Germans have not been able to keep up with the massive influx of refugees over the last week. This weekend alone, Munich received about 12,000.  Many who work on the ground feel overburdened. Refugees have been put up in tents and even trains.

Germany's move to reintroduce border controls could also be read as a strategic move to increase the pressure on other EU member-states. The signal is: Germany cannot take care of the refugee crisis alone and needs the solidarity of its European partners.

Germany had emerged as the leader in accepting these refugees.  Why so generous? 

Domestically there has been a growing consensus that Germany cannot sit idle watching the humanitarian catastrophe unfold. Germans welcomed refugees with compassion and an outpouring of generosity.  There's been a lot of discussion by German opposition parties and media outlets about moral imperatives resulting from the Holocaust and Germans' own experience with massive post-war migration.

It's also a reaction against the xenophobic backlash in recent months.

Added to that is Germany's controversial role in the Greek debt crisis and the negative portrayal of Merkel because of austerity measures imposed on Southern Europe.

So, Germany's decision to accept up to 800,000 refugees this year was seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that it can lead by example.  

How is Germany in a better position than other European countries to absorb these refugees?

Germany has done very well since the economic crisis of 2008. It has the financial and administrative resources to deal with these enormous numbers of newcomers.

The country also needs immigrants because of serious demographic challenges, especially within the labour force.  The German economy could actually benefit from refugees.

Still, housing them and providing them with work will be a major logistical challenge and Germany isn't sufficiently prepared yet.

Already, there is a backlog of more than 250,000 applications for asylum at the ministry in Berlin. On average, it takes more than six months to process them.

Germany's commitment to taking in such high numbers of refugees in 2015 and in the coming years is expected to exceed three billion euros annually. There is also a chance of a backlash against these migrants in the not-too-distant future.     

Why has Eastern Europe been so resistant to taking refugees, a bit ironic given that this region produced a huge wave of migrants in 1989 and the early 1990s?

Countries such as Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia argue they have limited resources to welcome refugees in great numbers, and no experience in integrating non-Europeans into their societies.

They claim that they are much better equipped to deal with refugees coming from Ukraine.

Political concerns also play an important role. Some former Communist countries aren't very open to ethno-cultural diversity or immigration. At times, a more aggressive and exclusionary nationalist stand can be a powerful political weapon (Hungary being a good example).

How is German society likely to change as it absorbs the huge numbers of refugees?

It will change German society profoundly. 

Germany Migrants

A refugee woman from Syria carries a bag with personal things on top of her head, at a tent village for migrants at the Donnersberg bridge close to the central train station in Munich on Sunday. (Andreas Gebert/dpa/Associated Press)

The massive influx of refugees from the Arab world will make German society more culturally and religiously diverse. German cities might eventually look more like Canadian metropolitan centres in terms of the global make-up of their inhabitants.

So far, Germany does not have a very good track record of providing immigrants with equitable opportunities in the education system or in the labour market. In this respect, German society needs to avoid creating a social class of marginalized newcomers.

Similarly, an anti-foreigner backlash is very much a possibility.

So what's the plan for integration?

One key element is to have refugees take residence across Germany, including in smaller communities.

Different from France, Germany has adopted a decentralized approach in an effort to avoid creating areas densely populated by immigrants – "ghettos" of socially marginalized groups. At the moment, city authorities — in particular in smaller towns — are complaining bitterly about not having the resources to welcome refugees in such great numbers.

Do you think Canada and the U.S. will be pressed — either morally or politically — to accept more refugees as the EU struggles to find a solution?

The U.S. has just announced that it will take in at least 10,000 refugees from Syria. The United Kingdom has recently made similar commitments. These examples are an indication that there is increasing international pressure to accept moral and political responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding.

The marginal role that Canada is playing in the current refugee crisis is increasingly out of sync with the fundamental values of Canadians and the collective experience that Canadians share as an immigrant society.