“Some boys think they will be paid to play soccer here”

F.D.P. politician Joachim Stamp on his new post as special representative for migration agreements, the deportation of foreigners who commit crimes and the idea of transferring asylum procedures abroad.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

This interview was first published in German by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 4 February 2023:
“Manche Jungs glauben, dass sie bei uns fürs Fußballspielen bezahlt werden

Excerpts from the interview:

Mr. Stamp, you have just taken office as the German government’s “special representative for migration agreements.” A tabloid called you “Germany’s top deportation commissioner.” Is that how you see yourself?

It’s explicitly not just about deportations, especially since the federal states are still responsible for that. It’s about a fundamentally new political approach: comprehensive agreements with the countries of origin, so-called migration agreements.

These agreements provide for a country to be granted a quota of legal immigration if it accepts back its own citizens who have committed criminal offenses in Germany or whose asylum applications have been rejected.

Such agreements would have to vary from country to country. But in principle, we agreed in the coalition agreement between the two parties to reduce irregular migration and strengthen regular migration. The idea goes back to proposals such as those made by migration researcher Gerald Knaus, with whom I am in regular contact.

In 2019, Knaus proposed concluding an agreement with The Gambia as a model: Legal immigration within a certain quota, if Gambia first takes back criminals as well as, from a cut-off date, all other nationals who come to Germany outside this quota.

This is actually a model that is very conceivable.

But the coalition agreement also says: “Not every person who comes to us can stay. We are launching a repatriation offensive to implement departures more consistently, especially the deportation of criminals and dangerous persons.” How is this to be achieved?

In the past, there were always steep announcements about deportations from certain politicians, but experience shows that nothing happens without the willingness of the countries of origin to take back their citizens who are obliged to leave the country. Some countries of origin also refuse to take back their citizens because a strong diaspora in Germany is economically important to them through remittances. Such transfer payments are often much higher than German development aid, which is why threatening to cancel them makes little impression. We have to convey to these countries that it is better for them if their people do not live here in illegality but in a regular way, because then they are of course much stronger financially and can better support their home country. For this, we can offer a certain number of regular visas to study here, to do an apprenticeship or to go directly into the labour market. Through the newly created right of opportunity to stay, we also offer those who are already here and who have a job here a prospect of legalizing their status. But we also have a clear expectation: in order to provide the integrated majority with a regular status, countries must take back their citizens who are considered criminals and dangerous persons here – and, from a certain date, all other of their citizens who still come to Germany irregularly.

The 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey was based on a similar model. However, it has failed.

Initially, the agreement helped to greatly reduce migration flows on the Balkan route. This was also because Turkey was given the means to integrate millions of refugees from Syria, who then did not even make their way to Europe. The fact that this later developed differently due to the policies of Turkish President Erdoğan is another matter.

Some EU states have other ideas for controlling the so-called Balkan route than migration agreements. Vienna, Budapest or Athens, for example, are calling for EU funds to further expand Greece’s and Bulgaria’s border fences with Turkey.

I am sceptical about this. Of course, Europe’s external borders must be protected. But barbed wire and fences alone are not enough to stop irregular migration. Instead, agreements with the countries of origin can ensure that people don’t venture into the desert in the first place, don’t board unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean, and don’t climb over barbed-wire fences only to end up here in an asylum system where they don’t belong because they are not persecuted in their countries. We want to create opportunities for a limited and contingent number to apply regularly for the German labour market, provided that those who try to do so on their own and who have no right of asylum here are readmitted by their countries of origin without further ado. We have had good experience with the Western Balkans arrangement. While the circumstances are somewhat different in this case, we want to extend the principle similarly to other countries and regions of the world. Of course, there are countries with which we cannot reach agreements at present for fundamental reasons, such as Syria or Afghanistan. But we will seek dialog with many other countries.

Your title “Special Representative of the Federal Government” sounds solemn, but you are a king without a country, since you have no real powers. Who are your most important partners?

That remains to be seen. We have excellent civil servants in the ministries, but there has been a lack of a body to bundle the initiatives of the various ministries into a strategy. That is also my task. If, for example, the Ministry of Labor wants to recruit workers in a particular country, this should be coordinated not only with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Development, but also with the Ministry of the Interior in such a way that the obligation to leave the country for people without the right of residence is also integrated into the agreements from the outset. We also need to bring practitioners together, even beyond the usual hierarchies. In my years as Integration Minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, I often experienced criticism from the federal police to the municipalities and from the municipalities to the federal police because there was a lack of agreements. There continue to be errors and gaps in logistics that repeatedly lead to delays or cancellations of deportations. Practitioners from all agencies involved can certainly achieve many improvements by talking directly with each other.

Many companies that have found workers abroad and can present signed employment contracts complain that this is not the case.

This has been a problem for a long time. In my time as minister, companies complained about this time and again. We need to make greater use of digitization here, and we also need to increase the number of staff in the relevant departments. We also need to become more flexible in the recognition of educational and vocational qualifications if we want to manage labor immigration well. However, I would caution against exaggerated expectations. None of this will bring quick results overnight. What is important is that we start down this new path and network the work between the ministries more closely.

According to the coalition agreement, the traffic lights also want to examine whether asylum procedures can be relocated to third countries. What does that mean exactly?

That we want to examine whether asylum procedures can be carried out in third countries, for example under the umbrella of the UNHCR, in compliance with the Geneva Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. Then people rescued on the Mediterranean would be brought to North Africa for their proceedings. But that requires a great deal of diplomacy and a long lead time. And it is clear that a country like Libya, for example, cannot be a partner for this in its current state. We need to take a close look at developments in potential partner countries. We are not talking about a quick fix, as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did with Rwanda.

Whereas British courts have ruled that Johnson’s move to transfer British asylum procedures to Rwanda is compatible with the UN Refugee Convention.

It is important that the standards of international law are upheld; anything less is out of the question. But on this basis, we actually want to think about it.

You will certainly get applause for this from parts of your party – but will the Greens go along with it?

It is crucial that we both end the deaths in the Mediterranean and the pushbacks at the EU’s external borders and reduce irregular migration. To do this, we need to remove the motivation for people to embark on the life-threatening crossing in the first place. This can be accomplished by providing regular alternatives to entry for a select group, if all others without asylum rights are consistently deported. Another case is those who entered irregularly, but who have abided by all the rules here for years. People who are integrated into the labour market and learn the language, whose children go to school, who have become a natural part of our society. We want to make it possible for them to stay permanently. On the other hand, we want to put all our concentration into getting rid of those who don’t play by the rules.

Those who only talk about deportation are missing the point

Never before has Germany taken in so many refugees as last year. To cope with this task, more than cheap promises is needed.

This article was published in Die Zeit in German on 9 February 2023:
Wer nur von Abschiebung spricht, der blendet

A guest article by Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) is one of Europe’s most influential experts on refugee policy. He helped develop the EU-Turkey Statement and wrote the books “Welche Grenzen brauchen wir?”(What Borders Do We Need?) and “Wir und die Flüchtlinge”(Us and the Refugees).

Since the founding of the Federal Republic, Germany has not taken in as many refugees in any year as it did in 2022. Last year, protection was granted to one million Ukrainians who fled to Germany after the Russian aggression and from the bloodiest war in Europe since the 1940s. In addition, about 100,000 asylum seekers, including more than 75,000 from Syria and Afghanistan, were also granted protection at first instance in 2022. Still others were granted protection by courts in the second instance and for 30,000 people, most of them Afghans, deportation was suspended in 2022.

Germany was thus a pillar of international refugee protection in 2022. But the practical challenges this entails are great. The most important reasons for the historic refugee year of 2022 are named quickly: above all Russia, then Syria and Afghanistan. Or: Putin, Assad, and the Taliban. Their actions were the cause of mass flight.

If you now add up these figures, you also immediately realise how misleading the current debate about speeding up deportations from Germany is. The vast majority of people who applied for asylum in Germany last year and in the years before were granted asylum or came from countries to which all European countries hardly ever deport – regardless of whether Thomas de Maizière, Horst Seehofer or Nancy Faeser headed the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin. This is because the vast majority of asylum applications, more than 80 per cent, were filed in Germany in recent years by citizens from ten countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Georgia, Somalia, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria and Russia. Refugees from Ukraine do not have to apply for asylum, they usually receive temporary protection status without red tape.

Deportations are necessary, but one must remain realistic

In 2021, 120,000 people from these ten countries submitted one of the 150,000 asylum applications in Germany. In 2022, they accounted for 180,000 out of 220,000 applications. The increase in applications between 2021 and 2022 can almost entirely be explained by the growth in asylum applications from these ten countries.

At the same time, however, there were and are almost no deportations to these countries. The only exception is Georgia, with good reason. The country, which benefits from visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens, cooperates very well in taking back its citizens. There were just over 1,000 deportations to Georgia in 2021. To the other nine countries, there were just as many in total.

But what does the political promise of a “deportation offensive” mean? That in 2023 not 52 people would be deported to Iraq as in 2021, but 152? That the number of deportations to Somalia would increase from 13 (2021) to 130 (2023)? In 2021, there were still a few controversial deportations to Afghanistan: 167. But these have also ended since the Taliban seized power. The same applies to deportations to Russia since the war on Ukraine.

Even a fivefold increase in deportations to these most important asylum-seeking countries would only be a few thousand people per year. In view of the large number of those who would receive protection in Germany in 2022, especially from Ukraine, this would hardly relieve German municipalities of the burden of receiving them. Those who promise this are missing the point.

Now, on the one hand, an asylum system in which final asylum decisions have no consequences does not make sense: in that case, one could dispense with procedures, as the EU did with the Ukrainians in 2022 for good reason. However, at the external borders this would have the foreseeable consequence of reinforcing already existing systematic pushbacks – as is the case today in Poland or Greece. Deportations are necessary, but those who demand them must remain realists.

The strongest argument in favour of strategic deportations is therefore that – within the framework of migration agreements limited to the deportation of convicted criminals or new arrivals according to cut-off dates – these could reduce life-threatening irregular migration across the sea and thus also save lives without relying on human rights violations. Negotiating migration agreements, which the new Special Envoy Joachim Stamp is supposed to tackle, is therefore about specifically getting convicted criminals out of the country, and reducing future irregular migration, for example across the Mediterranean. However, this would not change the fact that in 2023, as in 2022, most of the people seeking protection in Germany would again come from Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan, would receive protection and would not be affected by deportations.

A pilot project also for others

Thus, in the face of a record number of refugees in Germany as well as in Europe, the current discussions are helpless and devoid of strategy. The EU agreed on visa sanctions against the smallest country in Africa, Gambia, a young democracy and one of the poorest countries in the world, which does not even have a Schengen consulate. Incidentally, most Gambians in Europe who are obliged to leave the country live in Baden-Württemberg. Germany would be well advised to take the opposite course to achieve results and not destabilise countries: To make offers to strategically focus on the deportation of criminals and those who arrive after a cut-off date, and to allow the country quotas of legal migration in exchange. As a pilot project for others as well.

Equally unhelpful and pointless are considerations in Europe to once again close the so-called Balkan route in this crisis, as Viktor Orbán and Sebastian Kurz did once before in 2016. In these plans, the EU agency Frontex is to be sent to the borders of the Western Balkans to stop migrants there. This is all the more absurd because almost everyone in the EU is counting on Bulgaria and Romania to join the Schengen area as soon as possible, which will mean that there will no longer be any border controls between Greece and Germany. But then what are bored Frontex officials on the green border between northern Macedonia and Serbia supposed to do when there are no more borders around the EU-enclosed Western Balkans? Here, too, the opposite strategy would be more promising: to concentrate on the EU’s actual external border with Turkey, to negotiate agreements there through migration diplomacy and to present the Western Balkan states with a roadmap for joining the Schengen area soon, after reforms. And in this way, also in the interest of peace, to make disputed borders such as between Serbia and Kosovo more invisible.

But anyone who suggests today that more deportations would relieve the burden on municipalities in a situation in which nine out of ten refugees admitted in 2022 came legally from Ukraine is raising expectations that can never become reality. And thus does the business of populists who are already driven by fear and anger against allegedly traitorous elites. No democratic party in Germany can want that.

80 per cent a consequence of Putin’s war

What would be needed? A message that helps centrist politicians arm themselves against populists. Three measures that could also help the municipalities. And a concrete vision for the future, as also contained in the German coalition agreement.

The most important message: this historic refugee crisis in Germany and Europe is 80 percent a result of Putin’s war. The only way to prevent this crisis from getting worse is therefore to support Ukraine. So that Ukrainians are no longer forced to flee in even greater numbers in the future.

An important measure would therefore also be a better distribution of Ukrainian refugees still to come. Instead of Brussels being preoccupied with sanctioning little Gambia, an EU migration summit should discuss how countries that have taken in only a few Ukrainians so far could make a fair contribution. Currently, Baden-Württemberg has taken in more Ukrainians than the whole of France. The Czech Republic alone has taken in more people than France, Spain and Italy combined.

One way to change this would be to support families in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere in taking in refugees and accommodating them privately, as is already being done in Ireland and the UK, by giving them a monthly thank you payment (of around 500 euros). Germany should lobby for this, starting with the Chancellor, at the EU migration summit to launch a Europe-wide initiative of mobilising private, state-supported reception with the French President. The goal: by the end of 2023, at least as many Ukrainians should have been admitted to France, Spain, and Italy respectively (half a million) as have been admitted to the Czech Republic today. This would also relieve the burden on Germany.

A second measure: the acceleration of asylum procedures for all those who have hardly any chance of asylum anyway and whose countries of origin have an incentive to immediately take back citizens from Germany who are obliged to leave the country, such as Georgia and Moldova, due to the existing visa-free regime. Germany can also take its cue from countries like Austria. The goal: There should be hardly any asylum applications from these countries by the end of 2023. 

A third measure would be to make attractive offers to the most important transit countries at the European border, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, to motivate them to take back asylum seekers arriving irregularly via the Mediterranean Sea. The UNHCR could carry out the procedures for those sent back. This would reduce life-threatening irregular migration. In parallel, legal mobility and the admission of refugees through resettlement should be expanded, as envisaged in the German coalition agreement.

A vision for the future is also outlined in the coalition agreement: not only to reduce irregular migration, but also to promote legal migration. Germany should work to expand legal mobility with African countries in the framework of new migration agreements. Instead of pushing them into the asylum system, the EU should allow Ukrainians – after the end of temporary protection – to transition to full freedom of movement, as it does for people from the Western Balkans, Moldova, and Georgia. This would also be a measure against the lack of labour force (“Arbeiterlosigkeit”). More controlled and legal mobility from partner countries in Africa would make geopolitical sense and would strengthen the common interest in reducing irregular migration in return.

Today, in the face of record numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in Germany and elsewhere in the EU, deportations are a very blunt instrument. If we want to solve problems, restore the rule of law at the EU’s external borders and not provide populists with further ammunition, we need migration summits that propose practicable solutions based on facts. This requires a grand coalition of reason for humane control, in Germany as well as in the EU. And no more political posturing.