Germany's New Immigration Bill - A Delicate Balancing Act
BY NISKA CUMMING-BRUCE
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a point to embrace an ‘open-door policy’. Her successor Olaf Scholz however, under pressure from the far-right, is moving towards closing it. In a “historic”, cross-party bill on immigration, the German government is suddenly backtracking on its commitments.
The bill aims to reduce illegal immigration by strengthening border controls and facilitating deportation. It raises the bar to qualify for asylum, and extends the time spent in pre-deportation detention from 10 to 28 days. The time taken to decide on an application is set to be reduced. Authorities are no longer required to warn individuals before they are deported, except for the case of families with young children. The bill also guarantees states and municipalities 7,500 euros per refugee, while slashing benefits to asylum seekers, who will now have to wait three years instead of 18 months before they can receive social welfare aid.
The bill, finalised after 17 hours of discussion, marks a significant shift in Germany’s stance on immigration. Just a few months earlier, the German parliament had passed a new law to integrate immigrants and, in particular, refugees into the workforce more quickly. The motive was not purely humanitarian; it is well documented that Germany needs migrants. By the end of 2022, Germany was short of almost 2 million workers. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser emphasised the importance of removing bureaucratic obstacles, saying "It's unacceptable that you have to fill in 17 different applications to bring a new care worker into the country." But more conservative groups, especially the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, are fiercely opposed to any relaxation of the rules. And now, some of the changes this legislation promised for asylum seekers have been undone.
This shift is part of what seems to be a general shift on immigration. As the far-right gains traction, Scholz’s social democrat, liberal and Green party coalition is under pressure. One in five Germans claim to support the AfD, making it the second most popular party. Their harsh rhetoric on immigration, given the 3 million refugees living in the country, boosts their popularity. Amongst the German people, there is a sense of unease. Many fear the country is unequipped to support existing networks of migrants, with conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle-East promising more to come. For example, 250,000 asylum seekers have entered the country this year alone. Mr. Scholz and his allies are hoping that this bill will help to draw away some of the AfD’s support, but the party’s Alice Weidel was quick to triumphantly claim the credit. “Out of sheer panic, AfD demands are now being adopted,” she crowed. On the other hand, Green Party lawmaker Filiz Polat claimed the new rules were “massive encroachments on fundamental rights.”
The mixed response to the bill exposes confusion in the government’s overall strategy, further proved by potential collaboration with Italy. During recent debates on a new potential EU immigration law, agreed on by 21 member states mere weeks ago, Mr. Scholz opposed Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. He objected to some of her points on the basis that the EU needs to abide by strict humanitarian standards. Now, he has promised to consider her idea of outsourcing the processing of asylum seekers to Albania, in a controversial scheme that may be in violation of EU law. While Scholz has expressed scepticism about the practical possibility of the proposal, the fact that he has even agreed to consider it indicates a political turnaround.
Moreover, it’s not even clear how well his new bill and its plan to speed up deportation of unwanted asylum seekers will work if he cannot find countries to take them. Over 200 000 people residing in the country have ‘tolerated status’, meaning they are not eligible for political asylum or refugee status and technically have no right to stay, but cannot be repatriated or sent to another country. Countries, including Iraq and Nigeria, are refusing to take back migrants from their countries. When Scholz touched on the issue of migration at a meeting with the Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the latter simply removed the headset through which he could hear the translation. Negotiations with third countries such as Kenya or Uzbekistan are underway, but it is a difficult process.
In essence, with this new approach, the Chancellor is trying to balance the need to seem tough on immigration, the need for foreign workers, and the need to respect the government’s legal and moral obligation towards asylum seekers. One can only wonder if one will have to give.
Image: Pexels / German Flag outside Reichstag Building; View of National Flag of Germany with Reichstag Building in the background with sky