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Refuge and Asylum in Germany | Germany |

Germany Historical and Current Development of Migration to and from Germany Germany's Migration Policies Integration and Integration Policies in Germany Refuge and Asylum in Germany Current Challenges and Future Developments

Refuge and Asylum in Germany

Vera Hanewinkel Jochen Oltmer

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The admission and treatment of asylum seekers regularly trigger intense debates in politics and society, especially since the massive refugee influx of 2015. Asylum and refugee policies oscillate between the demand for the unrestricted protection of refugees on the one hand and protection from (too many) refugees on the other.

A coaching class in Stuttgart (June 2015) for refugees to prepare them for going to school. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Development of Asylum Laws

The Federal Republic of Germany is one of the signatory states of the Geneva Refugee Convention in 1951 and the supplemental protocol from 1967. Legally regulated asylum procedures were introduced for the first time in 1953. However, the right of asylum has existed in Germany for much longer.

Legal categories for the acceptance of refugees existed as early as in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). The German Deportation Act of 1929 stipulated the first prohibition of deportation in case of political offenses while the Prussian Foreigner Police Regulation of 1932 stated that political refugees must be granted asylum. However, the National Socialist rise to power in January of 1933 marked a turning point: Germany became opposed to asylum, as it was during the 19th century. Moreover, the National Socialist regime forced hundreds of thousands of people into exile.

As a reaction to displacement from the "Third Reich", the Parliamentary Council anchored a relatively expansive fundamental right for asylum in the Constitution in 1948/49 and clearly distanced itself from the National Socialist past. Article 16, Paragraph 2, Section 2 of the German Constitution stated without restrictions that: "Politically persecuted people shall be granted the right of asylum" (loose translation), until 1993. Nonetheless, only approximately 70,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in the first 20 years after the Federal Republic was founded.

During the 1970s, the refugee influx gained significance, especially after the Vietnam War and the acceptance of "Boat People". The military coup in Turkey in 1980/81, the political shift in Iran and the interior conflicts in Poland due to the rise of the union movement "Solidarność" also contributed to growing numbers of applicants for asylum. In 1980, the number of asylum seekers grew to more than 100,000 for the first time. 439,000 submitted applications for asylum in 1992 formed a preliminary peak (cf. Fig. 5). In light of increasing numbers of asylum seekers, discussions about reforming asylum laws took on a very polemical tone during the 1990s. The debate was also accompanied by growing racist violence. Xenophobic perpetrators committed arson attacks on refugee accommodation and the houses of immigrant families in several German cities. Several people were seriously injured or killed.

The reform of the asylum law from 1993, which became known as the ‘asylum compromise’, significantly restricted the right to asylum anchored in Article 16 of the Constitution. Since then, anyone entering via an EU country or a third country which is observant of the provisions of the Geneva Refugee Convention will not be granted the right to asylum. As Germany is completely surrounded by EU member states or Schengen states which signed the Geneva Refugee Convention, only those entering the country via air or sea travel have the right to asylum.

Asylum seekers from countries classified as "safe countries of origin", meaning countries in which no (apparent) persecution is to be expected, generally do not have the right to asylum. Their applications for asylum may be rejected more quickly. According to the asylum law, the "safe countries of origin" include Ghana and Senegal as well as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Except for citizens from Kosovo, the visa requirement was abolished for citizens from all aforementioned Balkan states in 2009 and 2010. This step led to an increase in asylum applicants from those countries. The classification as ‘safe country of origin’ which was applied to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia in 2014 and to Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro in 2015 was intended to send a signal to the countries of origin and prevent people from making their way to Germany. Human rights and refugee aid organizations criticized the decision as minorities such as the Roma are subject to discrimination and social exclusion in the supposedly safe countries of origin. A classification of the three North African states Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as safe countries of origins adopted by the Bundestag in 2016 was rejected by the Bundesrat in the spring of 2017.

Only those persons have the right to asylum who can prove that they are being "persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" (Art. 1A No. 2 of the Geneva Refugee Convention). Civil wars, poverty or natural disasters do not qualify as reasons for asylum. During the asylum proceedings, four different forms of protection may be granted: the recognition as someone eligible for asylum (according to German Basic Law) or as refugee (according to the Geneva Refugee Convention), subsidiary protection and deportation prohibitions.

Those eligible for asylum as well as foreign nationals who were granted refugee status initially receive a residence permit for three years which also entitles the holder to employment. After five years, a settlement permit, meaning an unlimited residence title, can be granted if certain integration conditions, such as German skills and largely independent assurance of livelihood are fulfilled. Persons who were granted subsidiary protection receive a residence permit limited to one year which also entitles the holder to employment. A permanent residence permit may be granted after five years at the earliest.

At the end of 2016, approximately 452,000 people lived in Germany who were granted refugee protection according to the Geneva Refugee Convention as well as 40,000 people eligible for asylum and 73,500 people entitled to subsidiary protection. Another 37,300 qualified for a deportation prohibition.

From 2014 to 2017, the German asylum laws underwent significant reforms. These reforms resulted in the strictest tightening of asylum laws since the ‘asylum compromise’ in 1993. Applicants for asylum ‘with poor prospects to remain’ are obliged to live in reception facilities and only qualify for non-cash benefits. Those with subsidiary protection may also not bring any family members to Germany until March 2018. Moreover, the list of safe countries of origin was expanded while several laws for the facilitation of deportations were adopted.

On the other hand, measures were taken to accelerate the integration of those eligible for protection in Germany. For example, applicants for asylum with "good prospects to remain" may participate in language and orientation classes (integration courses). People with exceptional leave to remain who have attained an apprenticeship training position may remain in Germany for the duration of the apprenticeship. After that, they have six months to find a job if not employed by the company of the apprenticeship.

In addition to the asylum proceedings, refugees may also be accepted via humanitarian intake programs and resettlement.

Development of the Numbers of Asylum Seekers

Applications for Asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany (Interner Link: Download PDF)

After increased asylum migration at the beginning of the 1990s, applications for asylum reached a low in 2007 at only 19,000. Since then, the number of applications for asylum has been steadily growing again. In 2015, it reached a new high with approximately 476,000 initial and repeated applications; this peak was significantly surpassed in 2016 with more than 746,000 applications (cf. Fig. 5). Yet, the number of applications for asylum reflects the refugee influx to Germany in 2015 and 2016 only insufficiently. In 2015, 890,000 people traveled to Germany to apply for asylum. The authorities were not prepared for this volume. In particular, personnel shortages at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which is responsible for processing asylum applications, resulted in the fact that many of those who arrived in 2015 were only able to submit a formal application for asylum during the following year. The refugee immigration to Germany in 2015, generally perceived as a ‘crisis’, was abated primarily due to the border closures along the ‘Balkan route’ and the refugee agreement generally referred to as the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’. In 2016, a total of 280,000 newly arrived asylum seekers were registered. During the first half of 2017, this number was 90,400.

With the backdrop of the political developments in Eastern, Central Eastern and South-Eastern Europe (including the opening of the "Iron Curtain" and the Yugoslavian War) during the 1990s, the majority of asylum applicants in Germany came from within Europe (including Turkey and the USSR/Russian Federation). During most years in the period from 2000 until 2015, most applicants came from Asia rather than Europe, especially from the countries ravaged by war and interior conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Iran. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Syria has been among the main countries of origin of asylum seekers.

Germany is among the most important destination countries in Europe for those who are seeking asylum. Compared with the 27 other EU member states in 2016, Germany accepted more asylum seekers in absolute numbers as well as in relation to the size of the population. Germany is advocating a refugee distribution quota to share the burden in a more balanced manner. The same goes for an externalization of the EU's external border: Refugees and immigrants are to be dissuaded from making their way to Europe by moving border controls to their regions of origin.

This text is part of the Interner Link: Migration Profile of Germany.

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is Research Assistant at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) of the University of Osnabrück.
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Dr. phil. habil., born in 1965, is Associate Professor of Modern History and Member of the Board of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) of the University of Osnabrück.
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