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Germany's Rwanda plan: Conservatives debate migration reform

December 27, 2023

German opposition party CDU wants to send asylum-seekers to third countries for processing. The plan aims to reshape immigration, but experts are divided over the legal and logistical workability.

A family of migrants is seen from behind in a migration center in Halle, Germany
Lawmaker Jens Spahn (CDU) has insisted the proposed changes to migration policy would drastically reduce the amount of 'irregular immigration' to GermanyImage: epd

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) put the plans for sending asylum-seekers to third countries into the draft of its new "basic principles program" in early December. The document is to be approved in 2024.

Following the publication of the draft, CDU lawmaker Jens Spahn insisted that such plans would drastically reduce the amount of "irregular immigration" to Germany. "If we pull it off consistently for four, six or eight weeks, the numbers would go down dramatically," Spahn told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung before Christmas.

Spahn said the plans would deter migrants from attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and argued that several countries would be willing to make deals to process migrants. "Rwanda would probably be willing," Spahn said. "Ghana might be, too. We should also talk to Eastern European countries such as Georgia and Moldova."

Spahn's comments come even though the United Kingdom's deal with Rwanda, signed in 2022, hit a legal roadblock in November, when Britain's Supreme Court ruled that "the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill-treatment." The court found that there was no way of guaranteeing that the Rwandan asylum system was fair and humane.

Friedrich Merz speaking into a microphone standing next to CDU vice-chairman Carsten Linnemann.
CDU chief Friedrich Merz (left) is in favor of a stricter asylum policyImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

UK, Denmark looking to move asylum procedures abroad

The British government is pressing ahead with the plan, insisting that, with a few amendments, it can be made legal — and has since signed a new deal with Rwanda. However, the United Kingdom has already paid Rwanda over £240 million ($300 million/€280 million) with another £50 million due next year, and has yet to transport a single migrant there.

Among other issues, the UK Supreme Court found that government ministers had failed to properly examine evidence from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, about a similar deal that Israel had made with Rwanda in 2013.

Denmark has also been in talks with Rwanda's government to introduce such a plan, though no deal has been signed because Denmark is hoping to put the plan together with other EU countries. Last week, the European Union presented a plan that would aim to process asylum-seekers directly at the EU's external borders and deport them from there if so determined.

EU agrees sweeping immigration reforms

'Details are everything' in migration policy change

Migration researcher Gerald Knaus told DW that, though the CDU's draft plan is a little vague, the idea would discourage people from taking dangerous migration routes.

"Rwanda participates on the assumption that, if you have a credible safe-third-country policy, people will stop crossing certain routes because it makes no sense, and then the number of transfers will also decrease," he said.

"What the UK courts have done is show how you do not do this," said Knaus, who believes that Germany's government could learn a lot from the court rulings, and that the Rwanda scheme is at least more humane than the far right's proposals. "The details are everything, and these judgments have been incredibly helpful because they said: Such a policy can work, but you must be serious about it."

Asylum plans 'unlikely to bring about any meaningful change'

The idea of processing asylum-seekers abroad isn't new. Germany's center-left-led government pledged in its 2021 coalition agreement to "examine whether the determination of protection status is possible in exceptional cases in third countries in compliance with the Refugee Convention and the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights]."

But there are different models for how this can be achieved, and, according to some experts, the Rwanda scheme is one of the least viable, both legally and logistically.

A more realistic model might have been presented by the deal that Italy and Albania signed in November, which will see migrants picked up in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea transported to Albania, where they can submit asylum applications.

Though questions have been raised about the legal and ethical implications, the Italy-Albania agreement does include some safeguards: Women, children and people in exceptional need are exempt, as are people who have already entered Italian waters. Also, the applications in Albania will be processed by Italian officials, who Italy has said will be bound by EU asylum law.

Both people whose asylum applications are successful and those whose applications are rejected would be taken back to Italy, where successful applicants would be allowed to settle. Rejected applicants would be deported from Italy.

UK court rules on 'deficiencies' in Rwanda deportation plan

Despite the stated safeguards, Lorenzo Piccoli, a researcher of migration policy with the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in Italy, said "there are strong reasons to doubt the efficacy of such plans that are extremely costly and affect a relatively small number of people."

One of those reasons is that, according to a 2018 study by the European Commission, it's not at all clear whether EU law can be applied outside of the bloc, as Italy claims. Secondly, it is unclear how Italy would manage the logistics of selecting from among traumatized migrants on ships in international waters, sailing some of them to Italy, and others for two more days to Albania.

Another proposal for processing asylum applications in third countries is already in place: the UNHCR's resettlement program, which processes asylum applications in transit countries such as Jordan. Once applications have been approved, the UNHCR finds countries willing to take in successful applicants, which is where the difficulty lies. According to the UNHCR, more than 1.4 million people were in need of resettlement in 2021, of whom only 63,000 were resettled. The projected global settlement need for 2023 is more than 2 million people.

Rwanda plan more of a political signal 

Piccoli said the Rwanda plan was more political than practical. "By showing that they want to make conditions harder for those who seek asylum, political parties want to score political goals," he said.

"Practically, as we have seen with the deal between the United Kingdom and Rwanda, these proposals are legally dubious and unlikely to bring about any meaningful change in the number of people who travel to a country," Piccoli said.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight