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A new chance for refugees in Germany

Heiner Kiesel / lw December 3, 2014

A new law should make it easier for foreigners living without a residence permit to stay in Germany – if they can provide for themselves. But, it would also be easier for authorities to deport foreign criminals.

Syrian refugees in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The German federal government wants to push through rapid reforms to the country's right of residence policy. The reforms will address the issue of foreigners living in Germany without official permits. On Wednesday (03.12.2014), the Federal Ministry of the Interior submitted a draft law to the cabinet which should grant these people a right to stay in the country on the premise of "long term integration."

According to ministry officials, a series of conditions are attached to the way residence permits will be granted under the new law. Individuals need to have been in Germany for eight years, be able to provide for themselves and speak adequate German. If the individual is a parent, they need to have spent at least six years in Germany. The new law would also make it easier for refugees seeking asylum in Germany to join family members already in the country.

Engaging with the German political system is also a condition for individuals looking to stay in the country under the new draft law, as is not having broken any laws in the country.

But for many foreigners living without a residence permit, the law could make their situation significantly more difficult, especially if they do not cooperate, or breach the law's conditions.

Many people without residence permits avoid deportation by hiding their identity. In such cases, the new law would allow authorities to search through email accounts, mobile phones and USB memory sticks in order to determine the true identity of refugees.

The new law would also make it easier to deport foreigners who already have a right to stay if, for example, they are deemed to pose a danger to the country, or if they receive a prison sentence of at least a year.

Two refugees are arrested by a police officer at a train station
Around 10,000 foreigners living in Germany illegally are deported each yearImage: DW/L. Abebe

Redefining residency rights should calm refugee debate

According to ministry officials, the law would benefit several tens of thousands of foreigners living in Germany without any legal status.

Currently there are around 150,000 people without a valid residence permit. Around 30,000 of these people are thought to have been in the country for longer than eight years and would be eligible to legally stay providing they meet the many conditions set by the new law. On the other hand, it is not clear how many could suffer from the tightening of restrictions that the law sets out.

The draft law has been put forward in response to the rising number of refugees entering the country. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are concerned that the number of deportations - around 10,000 people a year - is stagnating. "That is far too few," said Stephan Mayer of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, the news agency Reuters reported. He praised the draft law as a "good compromise balance between being lenient and being tough."

The German branch of the worldwide Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), however, is trying to ease the concern over the number of refugees in Germany. "Only one percent of refugees in the world come to Europe," pointed out JRS director, Father Frido Pflüger. This year around 140,000 refugees arrived in Germany. "This does not put much of a strain on a rich country like Germany," he added.

Criticism over tightening of regulations

The Ministry of the Interior's draft law has been met with harsh criticism from the opposition. Green Party politician Volker Beck described it as "carrot and stick policy." His colleague from the home affairs select committee, Ulla Jelpke of the left wing party "Die Linke," argued that the conditions were unfair. "Only those who are useful and don't cost us can stay. That is inhumane," she said. For Jelpke and other critics, the law will make the situation for refugees more difficult, as it is only very few who manage to come to Germany without going against the regulations already in place.

The difficulty of entering Germany legally is also a cause for concern for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, which warned that it would result in a huge increase in the number of refugees being arrested and imprisoned.