In 2015, there was this famous interview involving Angela Merkel and a young refugee girl (?) where the girl requests better policies/rights (?) for refugees from Merkel, and Merkel gives a controversial reply in which she states that people would be sent back, Germany doesn't have enough capacity etc.

Now, what is interesting is, in the same year, 2015, she turns to a more pro-refugee stance and as an example of that in public, we can see the famous "wir schaffen das" speech.

This also shows in the statistics as we can see the refugee status declaration has been steadily increasing ever since 2015.

My question is, why did Merkel, and maybe Germany as a whole, turn from a stance where intake of refugees is seen as undoable to one where it is seen as doable?

Excuse me if there is misinformation in my post. I am pretty new to understanding how German politics works

  • 7
    Your statistic does not show an ever increasing number of refugees arriving in Germany but rather an increase in the number of people who have the status of refugees in a given year. A large proportion of the 1.2 million in 2020 are the same individuals as the 970.000 in 2017. The number of people coming to Germany as refugees had a huge spike in 2015 and has been much lower since then (until the war in Ukraine in 2022).
    – quarague
    Jun 9, 2022 at 15:17
  • 1
    For data of refugees ariving, see bpb.de/themen/migration-integration/zahlen-zu-asyl/265708/…
    – ccprog
    Jun 9, 2022 at 15:18
  • This question asks primarily about Angela Merkel, which was chancellor back then, but still a single person and then also about Germany as a whole (which includes all people living in Germany). Problem is that there might be differences between the two. All the people might already before have been sympathetic towards Syrian refugees and therefore not much of a change happened, while Angela Merkel was more skeptical before and then aligned with the majority of people, or something else. The question could make more clear what it is mostly interested in, the chancellor of the people. Aug 22, 2022 at 11:28

6 Answers 6


First, note that Germany usually has coalition governments. Whatever her personal convictions, Chancellor Merkel had to balance her own policies with those of her own party and her coalition partners. It is often said that Chancellor Merkel was to the left of her own CDU, let alone the CSU.

Second, there are few Germans who want refugees to come to Europe and to Germany in particular. The difference is about how to deal with those who try. Many Germans used to insist on the Dublin rules, confident that few refugees would arrive by air or over the North Sea. Others believe that Germany can and should fill a greater role than the Dublin rules prescribe, and that every would-be refugee should be given the chance to stay in Europe while the claim is evaluated. Yet others want to close the borders completely.

In 2015, it became clear that the Dublin rules had become unworkable. Refugees were walking towards the northern and western parts of the EU, and the southern and eastern parts simply could not cope and register/house the refugees. In this situation, Chancellor Merkel led the German government to do something about the humanitarian crisis, despite a resistance in her own party towards refugees. This was immediately criticized as "creating a pull effect."

What is "doable" or "undoable" for Germany was not a question of absolute limits, it was a question of spending priorities.

  • After World War 2, the refugee numbers in some parts of Germany were equal to the residents. It was a different situation, of course. Most of the refugees were Germans, the Allies provided some aid, but Germany was also devastated by war. It had to be done, so it was done.
  • In 2015 and since, the refugee numbers in most of Germany were a few percent of the residents. Germany hadn't fought a war in generations, infrastructure was intact, and public finances were in reasonably good shape compared to other industrialized nations.

The question, would German taxpayers be willing to pay taxes so that a Syrian family could be sheltered? Would they be willing to postpone the refurbishment of the municipal gym so money can be spent on container housing? Would they accept that they won't get subsidized housing and refugees get it? Chancellor Merkel led her party towards a "yes" on those questions, and that was one reason why the AfD gained votes at the expense of the CDU.

  • 1
    "Chancellor Merkel led her party towards a "yes"" Yes, but why did she do it? She wouldn't needed to do that and as you say right after, it costed her party votes. Maybe she herself said about why she was/became so refugee-friendly? I also heard she is now writing her memoirs, so maybe something will be revealed about it in them. Aug 22, 2022 at 11:33
  • @Trilarion Merkel said at the time "Everyone has the right to be treated decently. Out party does not have the C in our name for nothing" (The C stands for Christian). Source: dw.com/de/merkel-bekr%C3%A4ftigt-ihren-asyl-kurs/a-18771505 Nov 6, 2022 at 13:48
  • @MichaelBorgwardt Thanks. That is at least a quote, although a bit too common place. Her party, the CDU isn't really overly Christian in any sense. It's more center-right and conservative., which is probably what was prompting the question here. If really everyone had the right to be treated decently, would we live in this world? Nov 6, 2022 at 13:51
  • 1
    @Trilarion I remember other statements from Merkel (though I cannot give a source) that amount to her personally considering her decisions a moral duty, given the situation (see the answer from ccprog for details about the situation). Nov 6, 2022 at 16:18

As one of the most-dicussed topics in German politics, there cannot be one opinion about what happened in 2015/2016 and why refugee politics changed. But one thing every one would agree on: the change in politics 2015, especially the suspension of EU rules for the intake of asylum seekers ("Dublin regulation") in September, was a temporary one. When the so-called "refugee deal" with Turkey was signed in March 2016, it marked a return to politics trying to bar refugees from entering the EU (and Germany).

The temporary reversal of politics had some very specific reasons in the situation of the late summer 2015. The general feeling of these days was that change was overdue. A paper headline of Bild am Sonntag from September 6th highlights the prevalent public opinion: "Sie dürfen zu uns – Merkel beendet die Schande von Budapest", "They can come to us – Merkel ends the shame of Budapest".

  • The number of refugees from Syria had risen throughout the year, and especially of those trying to reach Europe by passage over the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece, and on through the Balkan route to the Schengen treaty area.
  • At the end of August, thousands of refugees were stranded at the Budapest main railway station.
  • August 28th a lorry with the bodies of 71 dead refugees was found at the side of a motorway in Austria.
  • September 2nd the photo of drowned boy Alan Kurdi was shown in media worldwide.
  • September 4th the refugees at Budapest main station decided to march by foot on the motorway in the direction of the Austrian border.

On a more general level, I will cite one opinion about the reasons by political scientist Herfried Münkler published in the periodical "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" from April 2016.

He argues that the role of Germany in the European Union had begun to be seen under a different light since the financial crisis of 2009/10. Instead of being a model European and its main financier, it was now perceived as a "taskmaster", impositioning his view on other member states. Now, while the states at the border of Europe had to accomodate all refugees applying for asylum, Germany was in the conveniant position not to have external borders - under the rules of the Dublin regulation, the refugees had to remain in the country were they first entered the EU for processing of their asylum application.

While from his observations the application of the Dublin rules had in reality been patchy at best even before 2015 - sending asylum seekers back to their first country of entrance did often not happen -, now the rising numbers lead to a new dynamic and the rules were on the brink of exploding. Münkler argues that the general conflict about the role of Germany and the obvious injustice of the refugee politics together had the potential of destroying the Schengen treaty guaranteeing the freedom of movement, a cornerstone of the European Union. Under these circumstances, opening the borders in the southeast was meant to defuse a conflict threating the existence of a unified Europe.

In a second argument, he points also to the role of the non-EU balkan states. If the refugees streaming in from Greece were hindered from moving on into the EU, these countries would have found themselves in the roles of a sort of "strorage space" (Stauraum) for people trying to get elsewhere. Only 15 years after the end of the Balkan wars, these still partly fragile states would have been threatened with civil unrest over the presence of the refugees. This would have been a development not in the least desirable for the rest of Europe.

Es waren also keineswegs nur humanitäre, sondern auch geopolitische Argumente, die ausschlaggebend waren. Man hat der Bundesregierung...schon bald danach vorgeworfen, sie habe diese Entscheidung ohne Konsultationen mit den europäischen Partnern getroffen; außerdem habe sie keinen Plan für eine auf längere Sicht angelegte Bearbeitung der Flüchtlingskrise gehabt. [...] [Es] sollte zunächst "Zeit gekauft" werden... Die Länder an den Außengrenzen der EU, namentlich Griechenland, waren überfordert, und Deutschland sollte seiner Position als zusammenhaltende Macht der EU entsprechend als Puffer dienen, bis eine gesamteuropäische Lösung gefunden war. – Dieser Plan ist nicht aufgegangen. Die meisten EU-Mitgliedstaaten haben einen effektiven Beitrag zur Lösung der Flüchtlingskrise verweigert... [Die] Staaten unmittelbar jenseits der EU-Außengrenzen haben die politischen und finanziellen Kosten einer durch sie bewerkstelligten Drosselung des Flüchtlingszuzugs kontinuierlich erhöht. Sie hatten sehr schnell begriffen, dass die EU in dieser Frage politisch erpressbar war.

Deciding were by far not only humanitarian, but also geopolitical reasons. The federal government soon was accused of having decided without consulting its European partners, in addition to not having a longer term plan for tackling the refugee crisis. [...] First and foremost, it was "buying time". The countries at the EU outer borders, namely Greece, were overstrained, and Germany in its position of being a cohesive force for the EU should have acted as a cushion until a common European solution had been found. – This plan did not work out. Most EU memeber states refused to take an effective role in solving the refugee crisis... The states immediately beyond the EU outer borders continously have raised the political and financial costs of them curbing the influx of refugees. They soon had understood that the EU was susceptible to blackmail in this question.

Finally, let me point you to the August 2020 issue of "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" that gathers more views on the refugee crisis under the general heading "Wir schaffen das". Especially the pieces by Robin Alexander and Ulrich Herbert/Jakob Schonhagen take another look at what happened in August/September 2015.

  • " had been patchy" how to spot a programmer 101
    – Babu
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:59
  • 1
    A paper headline of Bild am Sonntag from September 6th highlights the prevalent public opinion Does it truly show the prevalent public opinion, or does it merely show the prevalent opinion among journalists? I'm not familiar with Germany, but in the USA, the media is often out of step with the broader public, continually trying to shift the public's opinion to become that of the journalists'. The USA media often gives a false perception of mainstream consensus to stances and ideas they want to make mainstream.
    – Jamin Grey
    Jun 10, 2022 at 1:13
  • 8
    @JaminGrey Bild am Sonntag is a populist and politically-right newspaper. If they applaud welcoming refugees, it's very unlikely that public opinion is against it. Having been on a business trip from Vienna to Germany in a train full of refugees at the time, I remember all the Germans and Austrians being very supportive.
    – Roland
    Jun 10, 2022 at 5:30
  • 1
    @JaminGrey I've cited this headline following its inclusion in the article by Herbert/Schönhagen mentioned above. Its first few paragraphs give a good impression of the ebb and flow of public opinion and the role of the populist Bild paper. Maybe it is more convincing to point out that on that weekend - sponsored by BIld - all professional football teams had the slogan "Refugees welcome" printed on their shirts.
    – ccprog
    Jun 10, 2022 at 14:31
  • @Roland & ccprog Thanks for explaining! Like I said, I'm ignorant of German politics, and wished to know if it was genuinely mainstream or not. Thank you!
    – Jamin Grey
    Jun 11, 2022 at 0:51

The story as I perceived it back then (I'm German) is a bit different. Merkel felt compelled to find a humanitarian solution in 2015, and hardened her stance a year or two later when it became clear that the huge influx was socially and politically — not economically! — unsustainable.

The "Dublin Regulation III", its iteration in force in 2015, upheld the principle that "the first Member State where finger prints are stored or an asylum claim is lodged is responsible for a person's asylum claim."

Partly as a consequence of the increased migration into Europe in the wake of the intensifying Syrian civil war, this regulation was modified in 2020. The EC page linked states in bold that "no Member State should shoulder a disproportionate responsibility": The primary goal of the modification is to provide relief to the border states who until then were solely responsible for attending to asylum seekers.

Because "the peak of the [Syrian civil] war was around 2015", the number of refugees grew by an order of magnitude during the summer of 2015. It became quickly clear that the relatively small and poor countries in Europe's South-East were entirely overwhelmed with the number of refugees. It was not so much breaking the (Dublin regulation) law than a dictate by circumstance that they began to simply forward the refugees into Europe's center, including Germany, which had until then been conveniently shielded from any refugee inconvenience by the Dublin regulation. That regulation now had become unenforceable.

My impression of Angela Merkel is that she is smart and conscientious. Even though she is famous for being unspectacular in personal appearance and political action, she is able to take radical steps that are untypical for a conservative politician: Abolish the draft, abandon nuclear power, and, in 2015, accept the Syrian refugees. The last two were almost spontaneous decisions under the impression of extraordinary events: A nuclear disaster of the highest order in a country comparable to Germany, and a civil war targeting the civil population in a country where many people had enough money to pack and leave, not very far from Europe. And pack they did.

Like with nuclear power, Merkel made what was, in my opinion, an essentially moral decision. Something that should not be under any circumstances was in her power to prevent, and she did. She also assessed correctly that both decisions were possible, that their cost was manageable: More coal burning without nuclear power, and substantial but manageable civil, administrative and budgetary strains with the refugees. Totally doable. "Wir schaffen das."

Still: The influx of, at its peak, 200,000 refugees per month overwhelmed many communities which had their school gyms and community centers repurposed for many months and became temporary homes to hundreds or thousands of foreigners. (As a comparison: The U.S. took in 1845 Syrian refugees in three years, a number that arrived within eight hours in Germany during November 2015. It still was hotly contested.)

Merkel's decision caused an enormous backlash. There is a sizeable xenophobic faction in the population who are against any immigration from countries south of Norway, and of course poor Germans living at subsistence levels wondered why suddenly all the money was available to build shiny new homes and sustain a million people who never had done anything for the country, while they had been told for years that there was, sorry, simply no money to improve their situation.

This story is one main driver for the loss of trust in the political system in Germany by a significant faction of the populace that extends far beyond the classic anti-democratic radical right. Many rather mainstream citizens had the feeling that politicians don't listen to the people, tolerate violations of international treaties, break the law themselves and indeed betray their oath, and that they are in bed with regular media who are under the control of politically correct journalists who don't tell the truth, e.g. about immigrant crime, when it does not fit political correctness.

It became clear that the huge influx was politically and socially unsustainable in Germany. Conscience or not, Merkel had to do something. The main solution was to bribe Turkey into containing the influx. Additionally, the Balkan countries closed their land borders to prevent unimpeded transmigration. Both developments are morally deplorable. But most Germans, including many politicians and SE authors, don't complain about it with a certain silent, guilty relief.

  • 1
    (+1) Note that the influx is not “huge“ in historical or international comparisons. European countries like to feel sorry for themselves but there are many more displaced persons from the Syrian war in Turkey right now. Lebanon (a small, struggling country, with a complex relationship to Syria) hosts perhaps twice as many as Germany (with 80M people and the largest economy in Europe).
    – Relaxed
    Aug 22, 2022 at 15:07
  • @Relaxed true.. Aug 22, 2022 at 16:38

Political pressure is why Merkel changed her stance so drastically.

AS you said yourself, her reply was seen as controversial because she said her country is full... they even used a young girl to make it look even worse for her. (If an adult male were used instead of a young girl it would have generated a lot less sympathy).

So the reason why Merkel changed her stance is because she was afraid her political image would suffer....

As for the whole of Germany, like the rest of Europe, has been more polarized... just as the support for refugees grows, so does the opposition as the people who were standing more central keep getting pushed to the extremes due to misinformation and propaganda campaigns (There have been massive pro and anti refugee protests across Germany, often followed or accompanied by counter protests).

In my country for example we have a massive housing shortage, this means that affordable housing has wait lists of 8+ years for native families... yet more and more refugees come which means that the refugee centers are overcrowded (not enough beds for 100's of refugees). Now politicians want refugees to get priority housing over the native population who don't have much money (young couples, lower educated people, single parents)... this obviously works as fuel on the fires of anti-refugee sentiment...

  • 4
    I find your answer hard to believe as to my understanding many german were with merkel stance (2015) that they don't want refugee and supported her answer to my knowledge
    – Babu
    Jun 9, 2022 at 14:09
  • @EthakkaappamwithChai Many were, but there has been a shift in German politics in recent years with the German youth being much more left leaning then the rest of Germany (The left win parties dominate the age group below 25). And with an eye on the youth votes (which are the future) the centralist parties became more left leaning (opening the room for more extreme right wing parties in the progress)
    – A.bakker
    Jun 10, 2022 at 6:40
  • 'They even used a young girl ...' -- are you implying the exchange was completely staged?
    – Jan
    Jun 13, 2022 at 13:49
  • @Jan it was, the entire event was obviously orchestrated, stuff like that don't randomly happen.
    – A.bakker
    Jun 13, 2022 at 19:25
  • @A.bakker That event was organized by the federal government's press office. Are you claiming that Merkel's own staff worked to make her look bad?
    – xyldke
    Jun 14, 2022 at 11:51

The simple answer is that there is little evidence that Merkel or the German government changed their stance towards refugees. Even this speech doesn't do that. It just acknowledges the reality that refugees had been arriving in Germany in larger numbers than before. There is some courage and decency in doing that (many governments didn't) but it does not amount to a change of policy. Germany was still looking for ways to prevent more people from coming or to send them somewhere else (Dublin system, Turkey agreement) and has continued to do that after 2015.

  • But effectively Germany took in a lot of refugees, even though they were officially looking for ways to limit that number. You mean to say that their stance has never changed, so maybe it always was that "refugee friendly" despite the official tough talk? Nov 6, 2022 at 17:03
  • @Trilarion No, that is not what I mean and I do not believe this to be true. It's also far from obvious that it took “a lot of refugees” in 2015, no matter how you look at it (compared to how many people are coming from Ukraine now, compared to some smaller European countries like Sweden, compared to countries like Lebanon, Turkey, etc.)
    – Relaxed
    Nov 7, 2022 at 2:48
  • "It's also far from obvious that it took “a lot of refugees” in 2015..." Whatever else, I think that this is actually quite obvious. One just has to look up the statistics (ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/9747530/…). Germany took in most of the Syrian refugees outside of neighboring countries to Syria like Turkey or Lebanon. Ukraine now isn't over yet and Germany could end up again with lots of Ukrainian refugees beyond those in immediate bordering countries. Nov 7, 2022 at 10:45
  • @Trilarion I am very familiar with the statistics, no need to look them up. Yes, Germany did took the most Syrian refugees… outside the countries that actually took the most. Meanwhile that number isn't particularly large compared to anything relevant (the number of refugees in the world, the number that went to some smaller European countries or countries with a lot less resources to welcome them, the German population, etc.)
    – Relaxed
    Nov 8, 2022 at 14:40
  • Looking at your own table (which is for 2018, not 2015), you will see that on a per-population basis, Germany is behind Austria, Switzerland, or Sweden and on a par with Greece, Cyprus, and Malta (which obviously have a lot more challenges to deal with). What this table shows is that Germany is a large and attractive country and that the actual number of Syrian refugees settled in Germany is not that large, relatively speaking.
    – Relaxed
    Nov 8, 2022 at 14:44


She didn't change her stance.

The Grundgesetz article 16a requires that "Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum."

However, what Angela Merkel was referring to were immigrants who come to Germany just to "live the good life" and are not covered by article 16a. And such (illegal) immigrants can be sent back.

Some background information

To be accepted as a refugee in Germany, either article 16a of the German constitution (Artikel 16a GG) or the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (aka the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 or the 1951 Refugee Convention). If this applies to an immigrant, this immigrant must be accepted into Germany as a refugee. Most refugees in Germany acquire the refugee status through the 1951 Refugee Convention, only very few through Artikel 16a GG (so even if Germany changed their constitution to prevent immigration, the 1951 Refugee Convention would still apply - Angela Merkel cannot change that).

So there are two groups of immigrants:

Group 1 who qualify as refugees through Artikel 16a GG and/or the 1951 Refugee Convention


Group 2 who don't. Note that I'm talking about immigrants here, not temporary visitors (like people on vacation in Germany). This group also contains people who acquire a right to stay in Germany by different means (like marriage to a Germany person).

When Angela Merkel had her famous "wir schaffen das" ("we can do/manage that") speech, she was referring to group 1.

In the video, she is referring to group 2. No contradiction there. Note that she says that "some will be sent back" and not that all will be sent back. She also mentions that Germany cannot accept (literally) everyone who wants to immigrate.

Some more background

Reem Sahwil, born 2000 in Baalbek, Lebanon, came to Germany in 2010 to receive medical treatment. The permit which allowed her and her family (her parents, her sister and her brother) to (temporarily) stay in Germany was valid until October 2017.

Neither Artikel 16a GG nor the 1951 Refugee Convention applied to her and her family, so she never was a "refugee girl" according to the laws and conventions.

In September 2017, her case was reviewed. It was favorably noted that both her father and mother had regular jobs and that Reem Sahwil had been well integrated. She received a Niederlassungserlaubnis (permanent residency, similar to the "green card" in the US) in Germany. This does not grant her Germany citizenship, but allows her to stay in Germany indefinitely. Note that a Niederlassungserlaubnis can only be obtained after a stay of at least five years in Germany (that was possibly what Angela Merkel was referring to when she mentioned the potentially stressful long period of uncertainty).

The lastest news is that she's attending Gymnasium (secondary school aka "preparatory high school" in the US) and is looking forward to study psychology in university.

  • "Neither Artikel 16a GG nor the 1951 Refugee Convention applied to her": the fact that they didn't apply when she entered Germany doesn't preclude the possibility that they might apply later. Any non-German who develops a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" that prevents them from returning to their country of nationality becomes a refugee at that point because the 1951 refugee applies to them at that point.
    – phoog
    Aug 22, 2022 at 22:53

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