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Germany: Refugee arrivals prompt debate over right to asylum

August 24, 2023

As increasing numbers of people seek refuge in Germany, some politicians are calling for asylum rights to be watered down. But they are enshrined in the German constitution.

Deutschland | Landesamt für Einwanderung
Berlin's immigration office in Moabit is the largest in all of GermanyImage: Vladimir Menck/SULUPRESS/picture alliance

In view of the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Germany, calls for limiting or entirely abolishing the right to asylum are growing louder.

"Germany needs a break from totally uncontrolled asylum-migration," Jens Spahn, a leading member of the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) said on the weekend, adding: "Integrating people who have been traumatized by war or violence takes time and resources. That can only be done well if the number of additional asylum seekers decreases dramatically."

Many municipalities in Germany are finding themselves overwhelmed by the workload of taking in and integrating people who have fled their home countries. Finding housing is particularly difficult.

If I come to Germany as a refugee, what can I expect?

Arguments like Spahn's have also been put forward by Sigmar Gabriel, former chairperson of the center-left Social Democrat party (SPD). In an interview with the German RND media group, he advocated abolishing the right to asylum, which is anchored in Germany's constitution, the Basic Law. "The attempt to react to the modern phenomenon of mass exodus by using the individual right to asylum and the Geneva Refugee Convention will not bring us success," Gabriel said.

The far-right anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been demanding this as a key policy platform since 2015. At that time, almost a million refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Germany within a year.

The right to asylum is enshrined in Germany's constitution

Germany is one of the few countries to have enshrined the right to asylum in its constitution — as a lesson from the political persecution of the Nazi era. Article 16a of the Basic Law states: "Politically persecuted persons have the right to asylum." 

In 1993, limitations on the right to asylum were imposed via an amendment to the constitution supported by most of the major political parties. Since then, the constitution has stated that people can only apply for asylum in Germany if they have not arrived via a so-called safe third country. 

In July, CDU lawmaker Thorsten Frei suggested eliminating the individual's right to asylum, and recommended instead that the UN's refugee agency UNHCR should select 300,000 to 400,000 refugees a year and then distribute them across Europe. 

Germany's center-left three-way coalition government — the SPD, Greens and FDP — is unlikely to support removing the right to asylum from the German constitution. "I am strictly against abolishing the individual right to asylum," German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told news magazine Spiegel on Wednesday (August 23).

"To suspend human rights in order to limit migration," cannot be a "solution," Green Party interior policy spokeswoman Lamya Kaddor told the Welt newspaper.

Critics accuse Frei and others of aligning themselves closer to the AfD, which is currently polling over 20% nationwide.

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Refugee numbers increasing — not only in Germany

The number of refugees worldwide is reaching an all-time high, according to the United Nations, also because of old conflicts, such in Sudan, flaring up again. 

The number of people seeking asylum in Germany has increased: Between January andJuly this year, 175,272 people applied for asylum in Germany. That is almost 80% more initial applications than in the same period the previous year.

Most of the applicants were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Turkey. The number of Turks seeking protection has tripled this year in comparison with 2022.

War has raged in Syria since 2011. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have been persecuting dissidents since retaking power in 2021 and the country is sinking into a humanitarian crisis.

Additionally, about a million people from Ukraine have fled to Germany since Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022. They do not need to apply for asylum, instead, they receive a "residence for temporary protection." The legal basis for this is the so-called temporary protection directive from the European Union.

More relatives of people who have already been granted protection are coming to Germany too. The German Foreign Office told DW that about 16,000 visas had been issued for this purpose since January this year: "Since the end of last year, we have recorded a strong increase in applications for family reunification for people who have been granted subsidiary protection." Holders of subsidiary protection have not been granted asylum or refugee status, yet still cannot return to their country of origin because their life or health is threatened there.

An asylum balancing act

The federal government does not want to compromise the humanist core of German asylum law. At the same time, it is attempting to restrict the number of new arrivals.

It has appointed a special representative, who is tasked with making agreements with the refugees' countries of origin and facilitating deportations of individuals whose asylum applications have been rejected. A law aimed at speeding up the asylum process in Germany came into force in January this year.

The German government is pushing for the EU to reform its asylum laws before the European Parliament elections of June next year. It wants to ensure that people seeking protection can be turned away at the EU's external borders if their chances of being granted asylum are slim. That would lead to fewer people reaching Germany.

On the other hand, Germany is encouraging the immigration of urgently needed skilled workers. And the government is planning to give residency rights to an estimated 130,000 migrants currently trapped in legal limbo because they have not been recognized as refugees, but have lived in Germany for more than five years with a so-called Duldung, or "tolerance" status.

This article was originally written in German.

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Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille