MUNICH - Germany is to hold a summit on refugees Friday, as the number of people seeking asylum in the country has doubled in a year. Close to 30,000 migrants are believed to have crossed the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe so far in 2015, with many heading north in the hope of finding better welfare programs and jobs.
The first migrants boarded the Verona to Munich express train at Brenner, the last stop in Italy, on the mountainous Austrian border. They were mostly Somalis and Eritreans; they carried no possessions; nervously, they made their way through the cars. Some sat in vacant seats, others waited in corridors.
The first police officers came aboard at Rosenheim just inside Germany, and began checking passports. One by one, the migrants were led off the train. After half an hour, more than 70 were lined up on the platform as the other passengers stared through the windows.
Under Europe’s so-called "Dublin Regulations," migrants are meant to apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive. So they often refuse to reveal their identity or give fingerprints until they get to their final destination – often Germany or other wealthy northern European states.
Few migrants want to stay in southern Europe, explains Rebecca Kilian-Mason of the Munich Refugee Council.
“Like in Greece, you have huge problems. And no one is sent back to Greece at the moment, because the situation is so awful. With Italy, there are still a lot of people sent back to Italy, through Dublin [Regulations], and that is quite problematic because a lot of people are homeless, they don’t get social support,” she said.
But they do get that support in Germany. 173,000 people applied for asylum here in 2014. The rate has doubled in 2015.
Among them is James from Sierra Leone. He’s now living in refugee accommodation in Munich - but first set foot in Europe by illegally entering the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa. He hopes the German authorities will look kindly on his asylum application.
“It hurts me when I heard that maybe they’re going to send me back to Spain, sometimes it hurts me. I just don’t want to think about it. I can tell you: me being here [in Germany], is worth risking life for,” he explained.
The huge number of asylum cases means the authorities are overwhelmed - so only a fraction of those eligible are actually returned to their country of arrival, said Franziska Fassbinder, who provides free advice to migrants through the Munich Refugee Law Clinic.
“Because we have only a short time slot where they can bring this person back; this is about six months. And when a refugee comes to Germany, we often tell him or her just to wait,” said Fassbinder.
Many asylum seekers are rejected on the grounds that they are economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing war. It is a difficult distinction, argued Fassbinder. “I would also ask the question, ‘Is it really an economic reason if I can’t get any food?’”
Rich European nations like Germany are famous for their welfare programs and social care. But the influx of migrants, fleeing both war and poverty, is testing the will of governments and people across the continent.