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The Alternative for Germany party has introduced a bill aimed at permanently banning refugees from bringing their close relatives over from war-stricken countries. The move sparked a fiery debate in the Bundestag.
Thursday marked a historical moment for the Reichstag. It was the first time since the old parliament building burned down in 1933 that a far-right party has been able to present a draft law in the venerable Prussian-era edifice, a building revamped and reopened for the new democratic age in reunified Germany during the 1990s.
Unsurprisingly, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) chose to present a bill to the chamber that reflected the key policy that has elevated them to the third-largest political force in the Bundestag: stopping immigration. Specifically, their bill was an alteration to Germany's Residence Act that would permanently ban refugees with "subsidiary protection" status from bringing over their close relatives from war-torn countries.
Subsidiary protection is an intermediate status defined under European law, which "applies when neither refugee protection nor an entitlement to asylum can be granted and yet serious harm is threatened in the country of origin," as the German federal refugee agency BAMF puts it on its website. Once granted, it entitles the asylum seeker to a one-year residence permit, which can be extended on reapplication, as well as the right to work.
The AfD's idea ups the ante on the proposal by the conservative half of the acting German government, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which would see the current suspension of "family reunification" extended from March 16, 2018 (when it is currently due to expire) to July 31, 2018.
"The incentives to come here must end," said AfD Bundestag member Gottfried Curio as he opened Thursday's 45-minute parliamentary debate. "The magnet must finally be turned off." Curio also argued that the system was being routinely abused by those with the status, and that many asylum seekers merely claim to be related, "according to the motto: we all come from the same village, where we're all somehow related."
No 'Nazi jargon' please
"This shows once again what a racist party this is that has entered this parliament," said Ulla Jelpke of the socialist Left party, before dismissing the AfD's bill as "amateurish in its format, anti-humanitarian in its intention." Jelpke's fiery speech ended up drawing a mild rebuke from the Bundestag's Vice President Thomas Oppermann, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who asked delegates to refrain from terms like "racist, right-wing hate speech, and Nazi jargon" in favor of more "subtle arguments." That brought some applause from other delegates.
The other German parties, including the SPD, junior partners in the so-called grand coalition with the CDU, made plain that they would like to end the suspension of family reunification at some point — though the CDU and the liberal Free Democrats preferred to maintain the ban for some time.
Some opposition politicians argued that debate is of little real consequence anyway — and family reunification might actually aid integration. The number of people seeking asylum in Germany dropped significantly last year, and a recent study by criminologists suggested that allowing refugees to live with their families might be a significant factor in reducing crime among young male migrants.
"People with subsidiary protection are people who have fled war and torture," said Bellinda Bartolucci, legal policy adviser for the refugee rights organization Pro Asyl. "It's not a status that is simply handed out — it requires specific circumstances in the country of origin that aren't just going to be sorted out over a few months. We're talking about people who we know are going to stay for years."
She went on to argue that it was inhumane to expect such people to be deprived of their family. "How are people supposed to integrate when they constantly fear for their families?" she told DW. "How is a young person supposed to concentrate on school, or on training? In any case, legally speaking family reunification can't just be stopped — there are various laws that protect families."
Bartolucci also argued that even the CDU proposals, which include various additional caps and restrictions on family reunifications, would de facto entail a complete suspension "for the majority of those affected."
A noisy minority, but still a minority
None of those arguments washed with the AfD though, who oppose the integration of refugees on principle. "Neither the end of this limitation, or its extension — which would mean an end sometime in the future — are suitable for dealing with the continued arrival of millions of relatives and the threat to the welfare state, society, domestic peace, and constitutional order," the AfD parliamentary party wrote in its bill. Their figure is a major exaggeration: around 60,000 people with subsidiary protection have actually applied for family reunification.
"It's not people's wives and daughters who are threatening this domestic peace," commented a shocked Helge Lindh of the SPD during the debate. "It's the AfD and its rhetoric."
The AfD went on to add that any relatives of refugees who might be in danger back home in Syria or Afghanistan should instead move to "pacified, or uncontested zones in their home country, or else in protective camps in a neighboring country."
The AfD took third place in last September's national election, translating its 12.6 percent of the vote into 94 Bundestag members (which has since dropped to 92 after a couple of defections, most notably ex-leader Frauke Petry).