Between solidarity and rejection – Harshening of the asylum law in Germany

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“We don’t need clothes or money. We need a new political and legal system. I think that should be in focus,” said Adam Bahar. Living in exile in Berlin, Germany, he was at a debate in November 2015 called “Solidarity or Charity?” about the meaning of a new “welcome culture” in the country. Bahar wanted to go further. As a political activist from Sudan, he is part of the movement from Oranienplatz – a square in the capital Berlin, where refugees from all over Germany united and lived from 2012 to 2014, challenging the German law’s obligation of not leaving the area where a refugee is registered.

 

After fighting against this law, ensuring its partial withdrawal, and seeing its return last year, the movement now argues against new harsher measures for refugees, after almost 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived into Germany in 2015. However, the Oranienplatz movement, which once got a lot of attention with a camp occupying a central square in Berlin, is not the focus of the media anymore.

 

In 2015, German newspapers, TVs and citizens concentrated on the journey and the reception of new refugees, and on the debates on solidarity. That shifted, though, with the massive sexual assaults (including two rapes) during New Year’s Eve in the city of Cologne, where there are accounts of one thousand men involved. Victims declared that the offenders seemed to have North African origin.

 

The crimes fostered proposals of changes in the law, now also in the focus of international media. But most of the reforms in Germany’s asylum law have been already discussed – and some approved – since last year, while the focus of the media was on the “open doors” for refugees and the solidarity shown by the country and its leader, Angela Merkel, who has won accolades including “personality of the year” by Time magazine for her firmness and humanity.

 

By then Germany had already approved a law restricting some of the rights of refugees, and prepared what is internally referred as Asylpacket II, which had been planned since the beginning of November. But events such as the terrorist’s attacks in Paris in November  and the sexual offences in Cologne have given them support and fostered a greater toughening of  the German asylum law.

 

List of ‘safe countries’ is extended, and expulsion of their citizens will be easier

The law that came into force on October 24th 2015 refers to the process of asylum. In less than a month it was discussed and voted by the two legislative houses, despite the resistance from the main asylum associations in the country. The list of the so-called “safe countries of origin” (the premise being that there is no need for leaving and seeking asylum) was enlarged, including Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. Asylum seekers who come from those countries have to live in an emergency shelter until their request is analysed. Also according to the new law asylum seekers from “non-safe countries” can stay up to six months in emergency shelters and not three months anymore. That means the period of time they can’t work is also extended.

 

In early November, the federal government proposed further modifications to the right of asylum, giving origin to Asylpacket II. Both terrorists’ attacks in Paris and sexual offences in Cologne postponed an agreement among the government’s coalition parties and resulted in harsher measures being proposed. After weeks of debates and divergences, they have agreed on the proposals last Thursday, and will now send a draft law to Parliament.

 

The newest one, not foreseen two months ago, is the inclusion of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – the countries where many of the suspects of sexual assaults in Cologne come from – in the list of “safe countries”. If Asypacket II is approved, asylum seekers from “safe countries” and the ones with no identity documents will be kept in special centres of reception. The whole legal procedure involving them will take only one week, and in three weeks they can be expelled. Besides that, there won’t be a medical justification for non-expulsion anymore and it will be done at anytime, without fixing a date.

 

The main point of controversy inside the government’s coalition was decided against the refugees: people who receive “subsidiary protection” from the government (they don’t have the right to asylum, but are tolerated for humanitarian reasons) will have the right to family reunification only after two years in the country. The whole package is contested by NGOs such as The Council for Refugees in Germany and ProAsyl, which declared last Friday “it is a frontal attack against the right of asylum” and explained its objection to each of the changes.

 

Shifts in German public opinion

 

After activist Adam Bahar defended a new political and legal system changes in the law actually came into focus but surely in a different direction from the one expected by refugees’ movements such as the one from Oranienplatz. Solidarity is still the defining characteristic of German civil society towards refugees. In general, though, internal media and public discussions are not concentrating so much on the suffering of migrants anymore but on how the country is going to integrate so many people from cultures where, for example, different attitudes to women are in place. In this process, sets of rights are put against each other in simplifying ways – “refugees’ rights” versus “women’s rights”, for example.

 

The crimes in Cologne have highlighted feelings of rejection and fear of what is considered by many European citizens as homogeneous traces of whole cultures/nations. Last week, it came to light that known nightclubs in the city of Freiburg are forbidding the entrance of asylum seekers. Not far from there, in Villingen-Schwenningen, there was an attack last Thursday against a refugee shelter with a hand grenade, which didn’t explode. The crimes in Cologne have not only fostered waves of right-wing demonstrations and burnings of refugees’ shelters, but also provoked a change in public opinion, or at least were the final straw in the process. And there lays the support for changes in the law.

 

The idea of an acceleration of the legal process combined with a more rigorous control of asylum seekers is now seen as an adequate response to a moment of “crisis” and “urgency”. During the Economic Forum in Davos this month, German President Gauck pointed the possibility of a limitation of the number of accepted refugees, a measure many times publicly rejected by Angela Merkel. And inside CDU the possibility of a new name for running in 2017’s elections is even beginning to be considered, as the Chancellor, seen by many Germans as being too open to refugees, is losing popularity.

 

Germany is far from approving a law such as Denmark did last week, which allows police to confiscate cash and valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner (almost 1,5000 dollars) from asylum seekers. In spite of that, the risk is that a new set of rules will be approved in Germany in face of critical events, and not after a debate regarding refugees’ rights and how countries can create a new legal system that actually deals with contemporary transnationality.