A Land Too Far: Refugees in Germany

December 31, 2014
A Land Too Far: Refugees in Germany
Sabil Francis
Sabil Francis Guest Blogger

For the refugees crammed into the hold of ships or floating on rickety boats on the Mediterranean, Europe is the Promised Land. For Germany, it is a nightmare, for unlike other nations it bears the burden of history. In the first half of the 20th century is was Germans who fled Nazi tyranny.

Today, 75 years after the Second World War broke out, Germany is a haven of peace and calm, tolerant and dynamic. To hundreds of thousands fleeing oppression and tyranny it is heaven. At the same time, Germany has to contend with the rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment that has risen in Europe in the last few decades. Should the country, a nation which experienced first-hand what persecution and war is, open its arms to everyone, especially those of a very different cultural background? Or should it see refugees as potential back-door immigrants and tighten asylum policies? This is the dilemma at the heart of the German refugee policy.

In the dark days of the Nazi regime, German Jews were forced to migrate from the country. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jews were systematically removed from public and private life. Jews could not become German citizens, or marry “Aryan” Germans. Discrimination practices went further to impact the dead. In December 1935, the Reich Propaganda Ministry issued a decree forbidding Jewish soldiers to be named among the dead in World War I memorials.

Ironically some of those it drove away helped defeat the Nazi regime. Scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, who directed Project Manhattan that created the atomic bomb, and Alfred Einstein, who, in 1905, as part of his Special Theory of Relativity, argued that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of matter—the fundamental principle behind the atomic bomb. Both were German-Jewish refugees to the United States.

After the war, Germans themselves were refugees. As Hitler had used the principle of irredentism, or the claim that Germany had a right to those areas where the population was predominantly German, the Czechs, the Poles, the Hungarians and others enthusiastically pitched in to drive the Germans out. Between the summer of 1944 and the end of 1949, roughly 7.7 million Germans fled the relentless advance of the Soviet army and settled in West Germany. By the end of 1981, 1.1 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and about 700,000 expellees who had temporarily settled elsewhere, brought this figure to 9.5 million. Between 1982 and 2013, the Federal Republic took in another 3.5 million ethnic Germans and their families from Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Ironically, those who fled from the East were greeted with the same prejudice that today’s refugees often face. In Bavaria, in the 1950s, a pejorative German term for “refugee”, “flüchtlinge”, was applied to the Germans from the East, some of whose ancestors had moved there in the 12th century.

In addition, Germany is part of the EU, and various agreements, honored more in the breach than in the observance make it difficult for Germany to set refugee policies on its own. The Dublin Conventions stipulate that refugees must apply for asylum in the first safe country they reach. That put an enormous burden on European periphery countries such as Italy and Spain. As Asyl, the European NGO working with refugees put it, the only way to get political asylum in Germany is to parachute into it. Italy had a better solution. Most refugees that land in Italy are not registered, allowing them to travel further North to claim asylum at the port of first call, usually Germany. The figures speak for themselves. In 2013, there were 126,705 applications for asylum in Germany, in Italy 26,620 and another popular destination, Spain, had a mere 4,485 applications, according to EU figures.

Germans who fled the Soviet advance, or East Germany, had one crucial advantage. As Germany follows the principle of citizenship by blood, all they had to do was reach German soil and they were accepted. East Germans who reached the West had an automatic right to residence and citizenship. Their adventures: tricking border guards with false papers; a mother who fled, hiding her child in a suitcase; a prosecutor who, sickened by the excesses of the regime, fled to West Berlin with blank release orders and later used them to free others he had sent to jail, are immortalized in Museum Haus at Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary Cold War divide between East Berlin and West Berlin; between freedom and tyranny. For others, and especially for non EU citizens, it is Fortress Europe. Those who flee today from Syria, from Somalia, and from Afghanistan have the same tales of courage and endurance to tell. Yet, even after such trials, the walls they must breach upon reaching Europe are countless.

The first barrier is the Basic Law. Article 16a Paragraph 1 of the German Basic Law guarantees the right of asylum to those who are politically persecuted. The difficulty is proving that an individual faces political persecution. Does someone fleeing poverty or a failed sociopolitical system qualify? Famine, poverty or a bleak existence in a failed state are not grounds for asylum. Homosexuality, a crime in 38 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, qualifies but that alone does not suffice. An applicant from a country where homosexuality is a crime must show that the punishment is “unbearably severe and in every sense completely unreasonable.”

And even if they reach Germany the barriers are insurmountable. In contrast to Canada, for example, where refugees can work and claim welfare until their cases are decided, in Germany refugees are not allowed to work for the first nine months, and in Bavaria and Saxony they are not even allowed to leave the district of their registration. In other states they can travel only within the state. And after all the pain and suffering there is little hope of being accepted. Of the 36,660 applications in 2013, only 2,960 were given full refugee status. Another 2,040 were given tolerated status that comes with its own set of restrictions, which in some states means living in camps with no access to money but only a supply of vouchers that can be exchanged for food or hygiene products. These refugees have to renew their permit every six months. Several organizations and the Green Party are campaigning for greater rights for refugees. The German government in May 2013 agreed to take in 5000 Syrian refugees. In December 2013 a further 5000 were invited. Such invited refugees or “contingent” refugees receive a two year residence permit and the right to work and travel.
For the rest, even that is a distant dream.