Migration politics

Where Will They End Up? Refugees in Germany

Kosovo refugees 
Copyright: picture-alliance/dpaImages of refugees have become a staple of TV news coverage in our day. Every year many thousands come to Germany and other countries in search of sanctuary from persecution and/or war. Most of them are assigned a blanket label: “refugees”. But a closer look reveals decisive differences between them – and their whole future hinges on how those differences play out under various national and international laws.

Under international law, a refugee is anyone recognized as such according to the rules of the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Germany is one of the 140-odd signatories of this international agreement. It is supposed to protect people who are persecuted for political reasons or on the basis of their race, religion or creed and therefore can no longer live in their native country.

“Refugees” usually means asylum-seekers

Kosovo refugees in Lower Saxony 
Copyright: picture-alliance/dpaWhen people in Germany talk about refugees, they usually mean asylum-seekers: those who have applied for asylum to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and whose case has yet to be decided. But what exactly does “asylum” mean in this context? The Federal Republic of Germany guarantees that recognized refugees will not be sent back to the country from which they have fled. But it’s often hard for the authorities to determine whether someone is in actual fact threatened with persecution or death back home, so processing the applications takes a long time. During the first year of their stay, applicants are not allowed to work here – and afterwards their right to work is narrowly circumscribed. Not only that, but they have to live in assigned housing and may not leave town without special permission.

Very few candidates are granted asylum. Most are denied because on the way to Germany they passed through another EU country and therefore have to be processed there. Or because the BAMF deems their native country safe and sees no threat there to life and limb. In 2007, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 28,500-plus applications were decided in Germany: only 304 were granted – that’s 1.1 per cent. Around 45 per cent were denied, and a little over a quarter of the applicants were granted a so-called Duldung, or temporary stay of deportation. Some 200,000 people in Germany have such a certificate of Duldung. “It can be valid for a couple weeks or six months,” says Bernd Mesovic, legal policy spokesman for the association Pro Asyl. There are no exact statistics on the subject, he adds, because the various federal and state agencies responsible don’t pool their data in a central database. “In our experience,” he figures, “a three-month Duldung is generally standard.”
Pro Asyl estimates the number of people living in Germany without official permission at between 500,000 and 1.5 million.

Temporary residence permit

Copyright: picture-alliance/dpaA certificate of Duldung, or temporary stay of deportation, provides that at present the holder cannot be compelled to leave Germany, e.g. because he is ill, or because there’s a war going on in the region to which the rejected asylum-seeker is supposed to be deported (which generally means flown back against their will). This is the reason why many people from Kosovo and Serbia were allowed to stay in Germany “on sufferance” for several years. For the vast majority, the return to their war-torn country was repeatedly deferred for short periods of time. Today Serbia and Kosovo are deemed at peace, so those who are only here “on sufferance” are gradually supposed to be sent back. To make it easier for young Kosovars in particular to return to their – or their parents’ – country, the German authorities find lodgings or traineeships there for them. Refugee organizations protest that the beneficiaries are heavily pressured by the German authorities to accept these offers.

Refugees who are not granted a Duldung can stave off deportation by bringing an action or filing an urgent motion with the competent administrative court. Some cases are then re-examined, either by the state parliamentary committee on appeals or a so-called “commission on cases of (particular) hardship”. The commission can argue against deportation if, say, the petitioner is well-integrated into German society, or if he came here as a child, speaks German well and has no relatives left in his (or his parents’) native country. But the commission can only give recommendations: the final decision rests with the interior ministry in the Land concerned.

Asylum requests in Germany dwindling

The number of applications filed for asylum in Germany has plummeted in recent years. According to the BAMF, it received 22,085 original applications in 2008 – the third-lowest figure in the past 30 years. Nearly a third (over 6,800) of all requests last year were submitted by Iraqis. Next in line were some 1,400 Turks, mostly ethnic Kurds. The third-largest contingent of asylum-seekers is from Vietnam (1,042), followed by 879 applicants from Kosovo. Until 2007 Kosovars were counted as Serbs. Only when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 were Kosovars added to the list as a separate group.

The BAMF and its subordinate agencies determine whether or not to grant requests for asylum. Refugees who meet the criteria laid down in Section 16(a) of the German Grundgesetz (“Basic Law” or constitution) are officially recognized as being “entitled to asylum” and receive a residence permit for three years. After that, provided this recognition is not revoked, they receive a permanent residence permit, giving them virtually the same rights as German citizens.

By the early 1990s the number of requests for asylum had grown enormously, peaking at a record number of close to 440,000 in the year 1992. That was chiefly due to the opening-up of the borders to Eastern European countries and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Bundestag and Bundesrat subsequently passed more stringent legislation and the figures plunged. To be sure, the German Basic Law, though amended in 1993, still declares in Section 16(a): “Politisch Verfolgte genießen Asylrecht,” the official German translation of which into English is “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum.” But this very broadly-worded principle has since been relativized. Nowadays those who enter Germany via another EU member state or a so-called “safe third country” can no longer claim this right of asylum. That goes for entry via Switzerland or Norway, but also via countries in which the application of the Geneva Refugee Convention is “ensured”: this short list of “safe countries of origin” currently includes Ghana and Senegal.
Matthias Lohre
is a parliamentary correspondent for the taz newspaper and a historian.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2009

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