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After several months of welcome parties, "free hugs," and asylum seekers being housed in former concentration camps, Germany's arms are closing again to Syrian refugees as the country announces it will start sending away asylum seekers who have been fingerprinted in other European countries.
Kira Gehrmann, a spokesperson for Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), confirmed to VICE News that since October 21 the country has reimplemented a policy to return Syrian asylum seekers to every European country except for Greece.
"Germany currently performs the Dublin procedure for all member states and all countries of origin (except Greece)," Gehrmann said. "This also applies to Syrian national subjects since the 21st of October. This doesn't imply a rejection at the national border. It merely means that the Federal Office checks the jurisdiction of another member state during the asylum procedure, just as the Dublin procedure provides."
The Dublin regulations state that an asylum seeker must be logged and fingerprinted in the first European country they arrive in. If they later move on to another, possibly more desirable destination, they should be sent back again. In August, Germany announced a halt on these regulations for Syrian citizens who were fleeing the devastating conflict in their home country.
The spokesperson added that she couldn't qualify the number of Syrians who have been deported since this change began, though the total for the year is now at 169. Near the end of August, when the Dublin rules stopped being enforced, another spokesperson for BAMF told VICE News that Germany had only transferred 131 Syrian citizens to other European countries by the end of July.
"The common European asylum law provides a binding frame concerning the treatment of people in need for protection," Gehrmann also said. "The Dublin procedure is an important part within this system and applicable law. The German Ministry of the Interior assumes that each member state fulfils its legal and humanitarian obligations as a part of the European community of values, just as Germany does.
'It heralds a step back from the kind of forward thinking, positive example and policy that Germany has been adopting for the past several months'
"Each member state is obliged to register and provide incoming people in need of protection and to carry out the asylum procedure on its own according to European law."
Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and central Asia director for Human Rights Watch, reacted to the change in policy by calling it "unfortunate in so far as it heralds a step back from the kind of forward thinking, positive example and policy that Germany has been adopting for the past several months." She said this was clearly a response to pressure and criticism targeted at German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government "for the leadership it has shown in the refugee crisis," and indicated an effort to "send a message to asylum seekers that Germany should not be their preferred destination."
Any focus on "push" and "pull" factors should stop, Sunderland said. "The reasons people are leaving their countries are far more relevant than the pull factors — most of the people arriving this year are coming from countries experiencing war, repressive governments, they're trying to get away from very bad situations, and in so far as rights respecting and freedom and liberty serving as pull factors, well so be it. We don't want to sacrifice all of that in the name of stopping a refugee flow."
She added: "I suspect that people will continue to try to go to Germany as well as places like Sweden."
'It's a really hard law now and it will be really bad for families here in Germany'
While most European countries avoid sending asylum seekers back to Greece because of a 2011 condemnation of their treatment of migrants by the European Court of Human Rights, Sunderland said she didn't think Greece should be the only exception for Germany when it comes to returns. For example, "Hungary should not be considered a safe country under Dublin," she argued, "and I believe that German courts would probably block returns to Hungary on the grounds that conditions and treatment there… would not be adequate."
Harle Mar, a 20-year-old Syrian refugee now living in Giessen in Germany's Hesse state, told VICE News that the return of the Dublin regulations was "very, very bad for all the refugees in Germany."
Many Syrians who have arrived over the past few months had their fingerprints taken elsewhere, and others were still en route from Syria, Mar noted, saying that he himself had actively encouraged relatives to make the journey from Syria and Turkey across the Mediterranean and through Europe to Germany.
"Germany is really confusing to the refugees because [their] destiny depends on these laws," he said. "I know some people who have been refused, yesterday I found out a friend of mine and his two friends got refused. They will be sent back to Italy." In Italy, Mar knows another family who have gone on hunger strike after being told they could not progress to Germany.
"It's [a] really hard law now and it will be really bad for families here in Germany," he said.
In general, Mar said that the reaction of the Germans he knew to the inflow of arrivals had been "really cool." Syrian refugees felt welcomed there, he said, though he agreed that the country's resources were under pressure. "All the camps are full now. I think we understand that they can't take all these people."
Mar also said that — after a nonstop summer inflow — many Syrians are now being warned off trying to reach Europe. "Some because of the fingerprints, some because it's really hard to integrate yourself in Europe because it's another culture," he said. "We thank Germany, Germany did really good but it's hard for us, it's [still] a long process."
The Syrian student said he would be advising Syrian friends who had found work in Turkey to stay there and only come to Europe with an education. "If you're not really educated it's really hard." He also said many would find the change in culture difficult. "For example here in Germany it is traditional to shake hands when you say hello, and there are some [Syrians] who will not shake hands with a girl."
"If you are not really open it's hard because you have to respect the laws here, respect the culture here because you live in Germany, not Syria."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd