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.