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Germany mulls sending refugees to Africa

February 10, 2023

The German government has installed a special representative to make deals with African countries and other states to help with asylum procedures. But migration experts say they've seen these proposals before.

Refugees rescused by aid organization Ocean Viking in a rubber boat
Germany has seen a rise in refugee arrivalsImage: Flavio Gasperini/SOS Mediterranee/dpa/picture alliance

The German government is planning nothing less than "a paradigm shift" in migration policy, according to Joachim Stamp, who last week took over a daunting and dauntingly-titled new post: He is Germany's first-ever "Special representative of the federal government for migration agreements."

Stamp, a little-known member of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) who was previously integration minister in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been chosen to square a circle that has baffled many European governments: Germany dealt with 244,000 new asylum applications in 2022, over 50% of which were successful — but several hundred thousand rejected asylum-seekers need to leave the country. Meanwhile, the Federal Labor Office has calculated that Germany needs as many as 400,000 workers from abroad every year.

"We want to make more regular migration into the German job market possible on the one hand, but we also want to reduce irregular migration significantly," Stamp told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk this week.

But this will take a while, he warned. "We will only manage that if we approach the countries of origin in a different way — if we develop partnerships with the countries of origin," he said.

In other words, Stamp's plans mean reaching agreements with various countries in Eastern Europe and Africa that would possibly see them set up centers where individuals can apply for asylum — either in that country or in Germany.

Individuals sitting on plane being deported and accompanied by German police officers
The German government has vowed to begin a new 'deportation offensive'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

New deals with more countries

One model mentioned by Stamp would allow a country a certain quota of legal immigrants from the respective countries, to come to Germany in exchange for them taking back individuals who Germany wishes to repatriate or other nationals whose asylum applications had failed. Another plan would see people rescued from the Mediterranean returned to North Africa, most likely Tunisia, to have asylum procedures processed there rather than in Italy or Greece.

This would, Stamp insisted, represent a more humane approach than the Rwanda scheme the UK government has been trying to implement for the past year. Under that plan, currently stalled in UK courts, asylum-seekers whose claims are not being considered by the UK are to be flown 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) to the East African state to seek asylum. In exchange, Rwanda is being paid a £140 million ($170 million, €15.59 million) "economic transformation and integration fund." 

Similar agreements have been tried before and have failed, partly because the countries in question have simply not been interested in taking in thousands of migrants, especially if they're not of that nationality. But Stephan Thomae, FDP immigration policy spokesman in the federal parliament, insists Stamp's appointment will mark a sea change. "These deals need to be negotiated, and that has never happened in the past because these negotiations were never concentrated or target-oriented enough," he told DW. "Now we have a special representative who has precisely this job."

Joachim Stamp speaking into a DW microphone
Joachim Stamp is Germany's first-ever 'Special representative of the federal government for migration agreements'Image: S. Matic/DW

But what can Germany offer countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Niger or Moldova — to name just a few so-called transit countries — to persuade them to take over asylum processes? "There will always be a give-and-take," said Thomae. "Maybe the other country wants legal advantages in visa applications, or closer cooperation in building up infrastructure, or better trade relations, or a scientific exchange. It will depend."

Laura Lambert, a researcher in migration patterns at Freiburg University, said Stamp's suggestions don't appear to be particularly original. To her, the idea of returning rescued migrants to North Africa for processing sounded a lot like the "regional disembarkation platforms" the EU proposed in 2018. "That was rejected as neocolonialism by all the North African countries," Lambert told DW.

"So you see the problem. These North African countries all have their own interests and aren't simply willing to accept European policy on that level," she said. Put simply, EU countries have less leverage than they might think.

What leverage does Europe have?

There is also the question of what would happen to people whose applications have been turned down and then find themselves stranded in an African country? Conni Gunsser, of the migrant support organizations Refugee Council Hamburg and Watch the Med Alarm Phone, said that countries like Tunisia have no laws and capacities for people who want to apply for asylum.

"People end up hanging around in Tunisia without any papers, without any chance of getting work, without anywhere to stay, without any money," she said. "And even those who are recognized as refugees by UNHCR have no rights and experience a lot of racism in Tunisia."

One plan already in place is known as the Emergency Transit Mechanism, established in 2017 by the UN's Refugee Agency UNHCR, which is meant to evacuate vulnerable migrants from detention camps in Libya and take them to Niger. Niger signed up for the deal because the country was promised improved infrastructure for dealing with migrants and special recognition of its efforts and therefore more international aid.

Lambert traveled to the West African country to study the Emergency Transit Mechanism and found that it left many asylum-seekers in limbo. "That caused huge problems, because suddenly there were people who didn't get refugee status […] and it wasn't clear what would happen to them," she said. "At the same time there were big conflicts […] between the UNHCR and the state of Niger over who even had the right to grant people refugee status."

In the meantime, Lambert said some women had taken to prostitution to survive while other migrants were taking drugs to numb the memories of torture in Libya. "And in a very Muslim country like Niger that created a lot of conflicts," said Lambert.

New hope for migrants trapped in German limbo

Asylum-seekers in Germany could get 'tolerated status'

So what would happen to rejected asylum-seekers under Stamp's model?

"That too would be the subject of negotiations," said the FDP's Thomae. "A basic principle would be that people in an asylum center in another country would be covered by the same legal conditions as if they were with us in Germany. That would mean that if an asylum-seeker were rejected and therefore could not be brought to Germany, they would have to be deported to their home country."

The problem with that is that often deportations to the country of origin are not legally possible for humanitarian reasons — perhaps because the asylum-seeker is too ill to travel, or they come from a country that is unsafe.

In such cases in Germany, the asylum-seeker receives a Duldung, or "tolerated status," a kind of legal limbo that often lasts for years. "That wouldn't be humanely possible in such a center, which means that person would probably also be allowed to come to Germany," said Thomae.

Conni Gunsser bluntly dismissed Stamp's proposals. "Well, I would say all of this is nothing new and complete nonsense," she told DW.

"In general, I just always find this debate so skewed," Gunsser concluded. "In Germany, people say, 'Oh, the boat is full, we don't have enough money, etc.,' but if you look at the situation in the countries being discussed as places to send refugees, the economic and social situation is thousands of times worse, and they still have many more refugees than we do."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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