Should Europe open its borders to refugees?

A panel at the World Economic Forum discussed the opportunities and risks of immigration in Europe, chaired by DW Director General Peter Limbourg. Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports from Davos.

Long lines formed a long way in front of the entrance to the "Swiss Alpine School" in Davos. The security was tight, the guests on the podium were top class, including Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

The World Economic Forum is only open to accredited participants, but the "Open Forum Davos 2015," which takes places parallel to the forum, is open to everyone. And the Swiss people like to use the opportunity to see the political leaders visiting their Alpine home. The auditorium for the discussion was full, and a lot of young people came for the debate, which was broadcast by Swiss TV and chaired by DW Director General Peter Limbourg.

"Open borders - unavoidable or unnecessary?" was the question up for discussion on this cold Thursday evening - an issue that apparently moves many.

Dramatic figures

The facts that the UN high commissioner presented at the start were shocking. There are apparently over 50 million refugees worldwide, the highest number since the Second World War. "In 2013, 32,000 people had to leave their homes every day because of conflict," said Guterres.

Limbourg posed the question: should Europe open its borders and take in more refugees? Sommaruga's answer was a clear "yes," followed by a clear "but." Yes, because "borders must be open," she said, and then added as a caveat, "of course the security of the borders has to be guaranteed, and the refugees must be spread across Europe evenly."

Poverty or persecution

That is an issue that de Maiziere is currently facing, because only six European states currently take in the majority of refugees, including Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria. Many of these, according to the German minister, are economic migrants - people simply hoping for a better life in a richer country. "Poverty is not a reason to grant asylum," he said. "That has to be clear to everyone, and it is the only way to maintain the acceptance among the population."

Over 94,000 asylum applications were made in Germany between January and July 2014 - and it's estimated that over 200,000 were made in the whole year, the highest figure for many years. But for the German government, he insisted, refugees from crisis regions like Syria must be given all possible support.

Difficult situation in neighboring countries

Guterres said he sees a particularly dramatic situation in the neighboring countries to those crisis regions. Turkey has already taken in nearly 2 million refugees from Syria. The numbers are also increasing rapidly in Jordan and Lebanon, and those countries feel like they are being abandoned by the international community.

The Swiss president described her shock after her personal visits refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The hygienic conditions were dramatic, which is why Switzerland, she said, was trying to help on the ground by implementing infrastructure measures. "We have to support the countries affected directly by refugees," Sommaruga underlined. "The idea that they all want to come to Europe is wrong."


The Swiss population, she added, harbors prejudices against the increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, which was why procedures are being altered and accelerated.

Last summer, Sommaruga invited some of Europe's interior ministers to Zurich to see this accelerated procedure first hand. The aim was to make sure that no one had to wait longer than three months for a decision on their application. People who come from conflict zones should gain acceptance within days, while others should be refused entry just as quickly.

An audience member asked why we always talk about the consequences of increases in refugee numbers, and never the causes. "We have to talk about the causes too," the elderly Swiss man asked, and received applause. Another audience member, meanwhile, called on people to attend a rally with refugees on Saturday in Davos.

The debate lasted nearly two hours, and many continued it outside. Some handed out flyers calling for solidarity with refugees, others stamped away through the snow, deep in discussion.

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