Criminalising refugees – David Zuther, Germany

Refugee solidarity protests, Hamburg, Germany

Refugee solidarity protests, Hamburg, Germany

On July 2, 2015, barely noticed by the vast majority of the German population, the federal parliament passed the biggest reform in German asylum legislation of the past two decades. For the tens of thousands of people who seek refuge in this country from war, hunger and persecution, the bill is bittersweet. It includes regulations that will make life easier for them, but at the same time, many provisions of it will worsen their situation. The law is deliberately designed to be “inviting and deterring refugees” at the same time, as Federal Minister for the Interior, Thomas de Maziére (of the centre-right CDU party) described: the official aim is to ensure that resources are allocated to those most in need (for example, those fleeing the civil war in Syria) and not those who come to Germany to escape poverty (for instance, immigrants from the Balkan area). However, the government’s strategy of categorizing refugees into two groups (one “worthy” of asylum protection and one “to be deported”) has been harshly criticized by the opposition, as well as by human rights activists.

The main improvement regarding the situation of migrants is the reform of regulations for the so-called “Geduldeten” (“Tolerated”). Currently, tens of thousands of refugees are trapped in this administrative grey zone, in which they are issued only short-term residence permits. These people could be deported anytime, a nerve-wrecking and stressful situation. According to the new law, these people can be granted long-term permits if they have lived in Germany for some years, are able to make a living by themselves and speak German well.

Criminalizing refugees

The other articles of the asylum reform, however, will lead to the drastic deterioration of the situation asylum seekers in Germany are in. For instance, the immigration agencies will be allowed to issue more entry bans. The law provides a legal basis for the detention and deportation of denied asylum seekers if the authorities suspect they will not leave the country voluntarily. Another part of the law paves the way for the massive extension of the authorities’ practice of incarcerating and criminalizing refugees. From now on, asylum seekers can be immediately detained if they have either given inaccurate information to the authorities, lost their passport, entered the country avoiding border checks or paid money to human traffickers. As the German Lawyers’ Association correctly pointed out, basically any refugee entering Germany will meet at least one of these criteria and can therefore be arrested. For instance, as there is no legal way of applying for asylum outside of the European Union, refugees are forced into illegality. They have no choice of entering Germany, or the EU, legally because German and European policies deliberately lack any legal entry way. In practice, the new law is therefore prone to contribute to the increasing criminalization of refugees and asylum seekers.

The law and German social democrats

The law was passed in the German parliament, the Bundestag, with the votes of the two coalition parties: the centre-right, conservative CDU and the centre-left, social democrat SPD. The SPD’s approval of the bill is adding to a number of recent party leadership decisions that have irritated, or even angered, the SPD’s left wing. The course of the party’s boss, and vice-chancellor,  Sigmar Gabriel, has led to a sentiment among the party’s grassroots faction that their leadership is betraying the ideals of social democracy, with Gabriel’s enthusiasm for the controversial transatlantic trade agreement, his MPs’ backing of a debated new security law that extends surveillance powers of the police, and, in recent days, his harsh criticism of the current Greek administration. A few days ago, in an opinion piece for the German newspaper DIE ZEIT, a writer publicly declared he would leave the SPD after two decades, and explicitly named the asylum law as a reason, which he called “contrary” to his “moral conscience”.

1993’s little brother

Above all, however, an ugly historical precedent casts a dark shadow on this law: the 1993 asylum reform. In the 1990s, following the German re-unification, there was a massive eruption of xenophobic and racist attitudes in the eastern part of Germany. The wave of racism culminated in a series of violent riots: in 1991, neo-nazis attacked foreign workers in the Eastern German town of Hoyerswerda, and a year later, in August 1992, right-wing extremists besieged a number of houses in Rostock-Lichtenhagen that were home to asylum seekers and contract workers. They set fire to the buildings and threw stones and bottles at them while the local population cheered for the extremists and the police failed to intervene. Instead of standing with the harassed and attacked refugees and defending tolerance as a moral value, the conservative establishment used the violence to further their political agenda.

Safe third countries?

Arguing that the riots showed that the German public demanded further restrictions to the right to seek asylum, the centre-right CDU and their coalition partner FDP successfully pushed the opposition SPD (whose votes were needed to secure a majority) into accepting the “asylum compromise”. From then on, the right to seek asylum, guaranteed in Article 16 of the German constitution, was drastically restricted: firstly, refugees originating from “safe countries” could easily be sent back, and secondly, refugees who entered Germany via safe “third countries” were to be returned to those countries. As all the neighbouring countries of Germany qualified as “safe transit states”, it became effectively impossible for asylum seekers to enter Germany by land. The German government has since repeatedly extended the list of safe transit countries (which initially only encompassed European Union members).  The latest states were added last fall: asylum requests from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia are now automatically rejected by German authorities and the asylum seekers deported – despite warnings by human rights activists that the minority groups of Sinti and Roma face severe discrimination in these countries.

The parallels of 1993 and 2015

The similarities between 1993 and 2015 are striking. Like in 1993, neonazi political crime is skyrocketing. In the first half of 2015 alone, authorities counted 150 politically motivated attacks on asylum seekers’ accommodations, compared to 170 in the entire year of 2014. Last winter, the Pegida movement attracted tens of thousands of people to its demonstrations by exploiting deep-rooted xenophobic attitudes. But in this situation, politicians have expressed sympathy for what they call “legitimate concerns” about immigration rather than distancing themselves from blatantly racist views. Twenty years ago, asylum seekers’ homes were set on fire and the government basically did the same thing, limiting the right to seek asylum – and today? History repeats itself.

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