Germany Reaches Deal With Spain to Return Refugees

Migrants rescued at sea waiting to be transferred at the harbor of Algeciras, Spain, this month. Over 23,000 asylum-seekers entered Spain in the first eight months of this year, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than in all of 2017.CreditJorge Guerrero/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BERLIN — Refugees who come to Germany after entering the European Union through Spain can be turned back at the border under the terms of an agreement between Berlin and Madrid, the German Interior Ministry said on Wednesday.

The agreement, which was signed on Monday and will take effect on Saturday, is the first of its kind since June, when an argument over migration and border controls threatened to bring down the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

It will allow Germany to turn away refugees arriving along that increasingly important migration route, and is a sign of how the country’s politics have shifted since 2015, when Ms. Merkel welcomed more than a million people, some of whom had already passed through other European Union member states.

The chancellor won verbal agreement for such deals from Greece, Italy and Spain at a Brussels summit meeting in June, after her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, threatened to establish a hard border between Germany and Austria to restrict migrants.

Beginning Saturday, anyone entering Germany who is determined to have already registered as a refugee in Spain can be sent back there within 48 hours, Eleonore Petermann, a spokeswoman for the German Interior Ministry, told reporters. Germany did not offer Spain compensation, she said.

Talks with Athens and Rome are also underway, Ms. Petermann added, but are “not yet completed.” The agreement reached with Spain could serve as a basis for deals with those two countries, said Mathias Middelberg, a lawmaker with Ms. Merkel’s conservative party.

In an interview with the German daily Handelsblatt, Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister, said the new deal would affect only a “very small” number of people. But he warned that the Schengen system, which allows people and goods to travel freely among some European Union member states, could be endangered by further measures to return to hard borders.

“That is the great risk, if we don’t accept that we now have a shared outer border, then we will lose the advantages of Schengen,” Mr. Borrell said. “For Spain, with its 80 million visiting tourists every year, that would amount to a logistical and financial meltdown.”

On Saturday, as the agreement comes into effect, Ms. Merkel will begin a two-day visit with Pedro Sánchez, the new prime minister of Spain.

In recent months, Spain has become a front line of migration to Europe, after the closing of Hungary’s border to Serbia and Austria’s crackdown on migrant arrivals, which have led fewer people to try to illegally enter Europe via the Mediterranean shores of Greece and Italy.

Over 26,500 asylum-seekers entered Spain in the first eight months of this year, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than in all of 2017.

Under current practice, the European Union country where migrants first arrive is responsible for registering them and determining whether they are refugees. But that system was established before the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, which drove hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge.

Countries on the Continent’s perimeter have complained that the practice forces them to carry a disproportionate burden, requiring them to process and care for migrants who in some cases already have relatives in the wealthier countries of northern Europe.

At the summit meeting in June, European leaders agreed to a set of proposals to handle migration, including setting up centers in Europe and North Africa where recently arriving migrants would be screened, identified and distributed among the member states. So far, no countries outside the bloc have been eager to allow it to set up centers on their territory.

In an effort to better handle refugees, Germany opened its first screening centers last week in Bavaria, the home state of Mr. Seehofer, where his party faces a tough local election in October.

The centers are to function as clearing houses where migrants would live until the authorities are able to process their applications for refugee status. Previously, new arrivals were distributed among communities throughout the country, and were put in temporary accommodation while their status was decided.

Critics have argued that the centers would separate the migrants from the broader German society, making it more difficult for them to adjust. And the German branch of the charity Save the Children has accused the centers of failing to offer “an environment that children need in order to grow.”

Follow Melissa Eddy on Twitter: @meddynyt.

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