Action Plan for Migration and Foreign Policy
In recent years, the German government has failed to achieve its policy goals on refugees and irregular migration. Germany could, however, play a key role in the global debate on refugee protection and the humane treatment of migrants at borders. Doing so would not only be in its interests, but also within its means.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of the DGAP Report Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator.
An English PDF of this text can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.
In recent years, the German government has been unable to achieve its policy goals regarding refugees and irregular migration. Progress has not been made in the search for a coherent European asylum and border policy. Nor has there been any success in ending the widespread deaths of irregular migrants, especially in the Mediterranean. In 2021, it is still the case that almost one in two migrants who lose their lives at borders worldwide die while attempting to enter Europe. Efforts to eliminate the “root causes of displacement” have not been successful, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, or South Sudan – or indeed any of the other main countries of origin for refugees.
The German government has also been unable to reach functioning agreements with the migrants’ countries of origin that would allow it to actually send back more of those who are required to leave the country. It remains the case that nearly everyone deported from Germany is “returned” not to their countries of origin, but rather to other European countries. There is a sense of helplessness in many European interior ministries about the failure to execute any deportations, especially to those origin countries from which the vast majority of irregular migrants who arrive via the Mediterranean come.
By contrast, the number of people seeking international protection who came to Germany via legal routes has continued to fall – partly because of the pandemic. It is true that the number of people entering the EU and Germany irregularly has also fallen in recent years. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, around 100,000 people came to the EU irregularly each year from Africa and Asia via the Mediterranean. Yet the methods and strategies used at the EU’s borders to bring about this decline were not those that the last federal government agreed upon in its coalition agreement. Finally, the deal between the EU and Turkey, in which Germany had played a key role, also collapsed in March 2020.
Europe in Crisis
The Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted in 1951 to protect Europeans in the face of the catastrophic treatment of refugees before, during, and after the Second World War. Today, it is being flouted to an unprecedented degree worldwide, including at the EU’s external borders.
The EU’s border agency, Frontex, is also in crisis. At the start of 2021, it was even forced to withdraw from Hungary because the government in Budapest has been flouting a ruling on the Hungarian asylum system issued by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The court found that Hungary was deporting people who had entered the country irregularly to Serbia without examining the circumstances of each individual case. Frontex itself stated: “Our common efforts to protect the EU external borders can only be successful if we ensure that our cooperation and activities are fully in line with EU laws.” This is in doubt at a growing number of the EU’s external borders, where EU law is now broken systematically and on a regular basis. For years, there have also been regular reports of unlawful state violence being used as a means of border control at the Croatian-Bosnian and Greek-Turkish borders.
Germany can play a key role in the global debate about the protection of refugees and the humane treatment of migrants at borders. Doing so is both in Germany’s interests and within its capabilities. No other country in the world has admitted so many people seeking protection in recent years and, at the same time, made such a sizeable contribution to international organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Surveys of the German public show that a majority wants control over the borders but does not want to abandon the principle of protecting refugees. In September 2015, 37 percent agreed with the statement that Germany should admit as many refugees as it currently does. Twenty-two percent were in favor of admitting higher numbers, while 33 percent wanted lower numbers. Four dramatic years later, in January 2020, the Deutschlandtrend survey conducted on behalf of the Tagesschau television news program found that 42 percent of respondents still said that Germany should admit as many refugees as it currently does; 11 percent were in favor of higher numbers, while 40 percent wanted lower numbers. In both 2015 and 2020, a majority was in favor of admitting the same number of refugees or more, and a (large) minority was in favor of admitting fewer refugees. A policy capable of winning majority support would attempt to do both: lowering irregular migration and asylum applications from those who will ultimately not qualify for protection, while keeping constant the number of people in need of protection who are admitted via legal routes.
The dangerous populist panic about supposed mass migration from Africa and Asia must be successfully countered by a policy of humane controls.
These remarkably stable preferences also set the direction for the new federal government. Solutions need to be found that are both politically and practically feasible to reduce irregular migration to Germany while upholding human rights, refugee rights, and the EU’s self-imposed standards, all while granting protection to those in need of it. The dangerous populist panic about supposed mass migration from Africa and Asia must be successfully countered by a policy of humane controls.
Facts and Myths in the Asylum Debate
Between 2014 and 2018, more people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe than ever before: 1.9 million in total. However, more than half of them arrived in one country in the space of a single year; one million people reached Greece between April 2015 and March 2016. Except for this short period, there has been no irregular mass migration to the EU, including from the Middle East. In the 12 months following the EU-Turkey Statement, fewer than 27,000 people reached the Greek islands irregularly from Turkey. In the first six months of 2021, just 5,000 people reached Greece irregularly from Turkey – by land and by sea, including only 600 Afghans and fewer than 100 Syrians.
Myths and clichés dominate the public debate. For years, dramatic pictures of hundreds of young men storming the towering fences around the Spanish enclaves in North Africa have created the impression that Europe is under siege. This impression is wrong. The figures show that there has been no large-scale irregular migration from Africa to Spain in recent decades, and this is still the case today. Over the past 20 years, an average of 15,000 people per year crossed the sea irregularly. In 2019, it was around 25,000 people. The picture is similar in the case of the second route for irregular migrants from Africa, which runs through Tunisia, Libya, and Italy. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of people who entered Italy irregularly by sea averaged 25,000 per year. It was only 11,500 in 2019, then just over 30,000 in 2020.
In 2017, a rough estimate put the number of Africans living outside Africa at 17 million. Nine million of them lived in Europe, including three million in France. Almost two million came from three countries in North Africa: the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In any case, most of the Africans living in Europe come from a small number of countries in North Africa. Most countries in Africa are irrelevant in terms of migration to Europe. One of the most important challenges for a humane policy at Europe’s borders is therefore to find the right policy in relation to Morocco and Tunisia.
Almost No Repatriations From the EU
Unlike in the case of Syrians or Afghans, only a very small proportion of the few Africans who crossed the Mediterranean in recent years and applied for asylum in the EU were granted international protection. Yet very few of the Africans required to leave the country were actually deported.
The example of Spain shows what is not working in the EU. In Spain, the people who entered the country irregularly from Africa in 2018 and 2019 were mainly Moroccans, Algerians, and West Africans. In 2018, 65,000 migrants entered the country irregularly. Only half as many came in 2019. The number rose again in 2020, mainly due to increased arrivals from Morocco.
Hardly any of these migrants apply for asylum. Of the few who do, only a small number are granted a protection status. Yet, apart from a few Moroccans and Algerians, almost all of them remain in Spain. In other words, anyone who makes it from Morocco to Andalusia in a small boat, or who manages to climb over the lethal razor wire that tops Melilla’s fences, can count on being able to stay in Spain. Vulnerability plays next to no role as a criterion in this context. This encourages others to also make the attempt to cross the Spanish border.
The failure to deport back to Africa those African migrants who, having arrived irregularly and failed to qualify for protection, are obliged to leave the country is not a Spanish phenomenon. The picture is similar in France and Italy. The figures clearly show that, across Europe, the current migration control and asylum system is failing on citizens of African countries. Germany is no exception; it too carries out next to no deportations to Africa. Eighty percent of all deportations from Germany are to other European countries: in the EU, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Eight percent of those deported are returned to North Africa. Twelve percent are deported to other countries around the world.
According to UNHCR, in 2019, there were more than 6.3 million refugees and 18.5 million internally displaced people across Africa. Most of the refugees came from South Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. There were more than half a million internally displaced people in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. The root causes of displacement are present in all these countries: persecution, wars, and conflict. Anyone who really wants to help refugees and internally displaced people in Africa must find ways to do so in Africa.
Most of the migrants recorded by UNHCR as having been forced to flee are internally displaced people (IDPs). This shows how difficult it is to leave a country, even when people are forced to flee. The view that the refugee situation has been completely out of control worldwide for years is a misconception. This impression is partly due to how UNHCR counts refugees and displaced people. Not all the roughly 20.7 million refugees worldwide recorded by UNHCR need international support.
Germany should help to strengthen overtaxed capacities in countries of first admission and give them a boost via a multilateral initiative.
Where are the refugees who need to be helped? It is important to look carefully and distinguish between very different situations. These include the Rohingya people who fled in a panic from Myanmar to poverty-stricken Bangladesh in 2018; families from South Sudan who fled to Sudan; and millions of Syrians who fled to Syria’s neighboring countries. But they also include ethnic Chinese Vietnamese citizens who were admitted by China in the 1970s and are still counted as refugees in UNHCR statistics, as well as the nearly eight million Colombians who fled to neighboring countries twenty years ago to escape the fighting in Colombia and their children who were born in these countries. It has been so long since 5.4 million Palestinian refugees originally fled Israel that the statistics now include the third and fourth generations. Today, many of these people are not “fleeing” and only appear in the statistics for political, rather than humanitarian, reasons.
Germany should help to strengthen overtaxed capacities in countries of first admission and give them a boost via a multilateral initiative. After all, while a recognized refugee in Sweden, an asylum seeker in Hamburg, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, and a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda may all appear on the list of refugees, each has very different needs.
Supporting Sea Rescue
The number of people who drown while trying to reach Europe remains very high. Stopping this cannot be achieved solely by rescuing people in distress at sea, but it cannot be achieved without doing so either. The aim is two-fold: first, that fewer people board boats to try to cross the sea and, second, that those who still do so are rescued in time. We must rescue people in distress at sea, and at the same time we need to work to end a situation in which thousands of people cram onto overcrowded, unseaworthy dinghies.
The idea that there is nothing that can be done is clearly untrue. In the first two months of 2016 alone, 331 people drowned in the eastern Mediterranean. In the entire year of 2017, 62 did so. The reason for this decline was the EU-Turkey Statement.
The aim is two-fold: that fewer people board boats to try to cross the sea and that those who still do so are rescued in time.
What should be done? Maritime rescue centers in Rome and Malta should return to coordinating sea rescue operations in the entire central Mediterranean to spot shipwrecked people in time, as was the case until 2018. Also, private ships should be encouraged and helped to rescue shipwrecked people. A coalition of European countries – with Germany playing a key role – should express their willingness to allow all those who are rescued by private sea rescue ships and merchant ships, and then brought to reception centers in Malta, Italy, Corsica, or Tunisia, to enter the country from there within twelve weeks. This is the approach that was taken in 1980 when the German ship Cap Anamur carried out rescue operations in the South China Sea.
The time spent at the reception center should be used for asylum procedures. People who do not need protection in the EU should then be sent back directly from the centers to countries of origin or transit countries, as was agreed with Turkey in 2016. This requires readmission agreements that apply from an agreed date, attractive offers to these countries, and efficient asylum procedures that actually work.
The existing private sea rescue ships, supported by the headquarters of the Italian coast guard, would probably already be capable of rescuing the vast majority of shipwrecked people in the waters between Libya, Malta, and Italy, provided that two conditions are met. First, it would no longer be acceptable for Italy and Malta to tie private ships up in bureaucratic red tape to keep them from putting out to sea again quickly. Secondly, and crucially, the number of arrivals would have to remain at the low level of the past two years.
Renewing the International Asylum System
In December 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees, which underlines the “urgent need for more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees.” It states that the support base should be widened beyond those countries that have historically hosted refugees, while also outlining the need to strengthen asylum systems and facilitate the exchange of good practices.
As the seat of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF)), Nuremberg is the asylum capital of the world. In 2015 and 2016, 37 percent of all positive asylum decisions worldwide on refugee status and subsidiary protection were taken in Germany; the average over the past seven years has been 25 percent. In 2017 alone, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees took over 700,000 decisions – more than were taken in the rest of the European Union, the United States, Canada, and Australia combined. The experience gained in this process is of European and global importance.
German foreign policy should campaign for the renewal and further development of the international asylum system.
After all, it is not enough to merely have an asylum law. Without resources, investment, and the necessary quality control required to learn from experience and setbacks, it is impossible to maintain adequate standards over the long term and take decisions within an acceptable timeframe.
German foreign policy should therefore also campaign for the renewal and further development of the international asylum system, with the goal of improving the quality of asylum systems worldwide. Germany’s federal government should help well-functioning asylum systems in other countries around the world to share their experiences of how (even in crises) the right to a fair procedure can be upheld by means of qualified interviewers and interpreters, quality assessments, and substantiated decisions.
Improving Asylum Procedures at the EU’s Borders
The most urgent issue is to facilitate efficient and fair asylum procedures at the EU’s external borders. Germany, Spain, and others should join forces on a pilot project to promote efficient and fair procedures in Ceuta and Melilla, provide asylum officers and interpreters for this purpose, and take in recognized refugees. This kind of collaboration among the asylum authorities of Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and their colleagues from Spain would be a model for future asylum cooperation. The aim must be for decisions to be taken on most asylum applications within eight weeks.
The next step should then be for the new federal government and the BAMF to support high-quality asylum procedures throughout the Mediterranean region and form strategic partnerships with partner countries and their authorities for this purpose. Such partnerships should subsequently be extended to include Europe’s neighbors– from the Western Balkan countries to North Africa.
Facilitating and Accelerating Returns
The successful deportation of those required to leave the country only works if cooperation is in the interests of partner countries and if the system involves strategic deportations after an agreed date. In this context, the promise of legal mobility is the best means to achieve cooperation. In fact, there is an obvious link between the lack of legal travel options and the failure of deportations. Successful deportations take place to those countries whose citizens can enter the EU without a visa. These governments have an interest in cooperating with the EU. This is true of the Western Balkan countries, but also of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Currently, there are only a few options for Africans to travel legally to Europe. It is very difficult for people from Sub-Saharan Africa to obtain an increasingly expensive Schengen visa. In 2018, the Finnish consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, alone received more than 500,000 visa applications. The vast majority of them were approved. In Nigeria, only 89,000 visa applications were submitted to all EU consulates combined, and half of them were denied.
Being realistic on deportation means recognizing that a successful deportation policy depends on cooperating with countries of origin and transit countries and considering their interests.
Being realistic on deportation therefore means recognizing that a successful deportation policy depends on cooperating with countries of origin and transit countries and considering their interests. The fact that citizens of almost all Central and South American countries can enter the EU without requiring a visa, but not a single African country enjoys visa-free EU travel, is a stark symbol of the deep gulf between the continents. The new federal government should push within the EU for rapid change.
Countries such as Morocco and Tunisia play a particularly key role in this context. Morocco is the most important country of origin for irregular migration to Spain. It is also a major transit country. If Morocco were to take its citizens back quickly, develop a credible asylum system, and cooperate with the return of irregular migrants from third countries, the deaths in the western Mediterranean and the dramatic scenes at the fences in Ceuta and Melilla would soon be consigned to history.
To achieve this, the EU should make Morocco the same offer that it made to Ukraine in 2008: Morocco should undertake to accept the immediate return of its citizens and all migrants who enter the EU irregularly from Morocco – in cases where these people are not in need of protection – after an agreed date. In return, the EU and a group of member states should grant scholarships and visa facilitation for Moroccan citizens. At the same time, they should offer the prospect of lower visa costs and begin to liberalize the issuing of visas. This would immediately reduce irregular border crossings.
A successful mobility partnership would strengthen Europe’s security, as Morocco would have an interest in facilitating the rapid deportation of criminals and of Moroccan citizens required to leave the EU. Today, this is shown by the example of the Balkan countries, whose citizens have had the right to enter the EU without a visa since 2009 and 2010. Accepting the return of citizens required to leave the EU was a precondition from the outset.
In addition, this kind of agreement would send two signals. First, it would show that that the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the right to access asylum procedures are taken seriously and subject to credible scrutiny not only in Europe, but also by emerging economies on other continents – and with the same level of seriousness as that with which, say, the UNHCR has carried out its asylum procedures worldwide in recent decades. Second, it would also demonstrate that visa liberalization, the promise of legal travel to the EU based on cooperation, can also be an option for African countries.
Undertaking to Accept a Certain Number of Resettlements Each Year
Germany should make a commitment to accept a certain number of refugees each year. Canada offers a particularly interesting example for the new federal government. In 2019, Canada, with its population of 37 million, received around 60,000 asylum applications, 30,000 of them concerning resettlement, while the rest were submitted at Canada’s borders and inside the country. If Germany were to receive asylum applications in the same ratio as Canada, that would be around 135,000 asylum applications per year, of which 67,000 would involve resettlement.
A policy that would lead to 80,000 people applying for asylum in Germany in an average year, half of whom would enter the country in an orderly process through resettlement and relocation, would be an enormous improvement over the chaos of recent years: It would mean greater protection, faster integration, and fewer dangerous journeys across the sea.
The new federal government should create a resettlement coalition together with countries such as Sweden, France, and Canada, with participating countries undertaking to accept the annual resettlement of refugees on a scale equivalent to at least 0.05 percent of the population of the receiving country. In Germany’s case, that would be around 40,000 refugees per year. Together with other EU countries, this would represent a commitment to accept 120,000 resettlements per year, or 250,000 together with the United States and Canada. This would be a concrete form of assistance for vulnerable people and countries of first admission, without placing too great a burden on any single country.
A New EU-Turkey Statement and Pilot Projects for More Efficient Procedures at the External Borders
The new federal government should, as part of a new EU-Turkey Statement, make a proposal to Turkey and Greece for Germany to admit up to 20,000 recognized refugees each year. The prerequisite for this would be for more efficient asylum procedures to be achieved on the Greek islands in cooperation with the BAMF. A new agreement should also be reached with Turkey. This would lead to a sharp fall in the number of irregular arrivals and in the number of deaths.
As a second step, Germany should make an offer to Spain, Malta, and Italy to admit up to 10,000 people per year from joint reception centers in the Mediterranean. Again, the expectation in return would be the introduction of efficient joint asylum procedures and the return of people who do not require protection. Germany should also work toward agreements with African countries of origin and with the EU’s North African neighbors of Morocco and Tunisia. This would bring about a sharp fall in irregular migration via the Mediterranean and thus also in the number of asylum applications submitted in Germany, many of which are ultimately unsuccessful.
The new German government should set itself a major humanitarian goal for the next five years: In an ever richer world, no refugee should have to live in hardship.
Supporting Refugees Worldwide with a Multi-Year Support Package
The new German government should set itself a major humanitarian goal for the next five years: In an ever richer world, no refugee should have to live in hardship. This would be achievable if Germany worked together with a coalition of other countries: The countries committed to this goal would give UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, and other organizations the necessary resources for a multi-year budget. Assistance should especially be provided to acutely affected countries of first admission, such as Uganda or Bangladesh. The organizations should use this funding to ensure that around 15 million refugees living in hardship receive basic services that reflect human dignity in their host countries – cash assistance, access to schools, and health care.
A concrete example exists of this kind of model: the assistance that Turkey has provided to millions of Syrian refugees using EU funds since 2016. This direct assistance avoids unnecessary bureaucracy and strengthens individual autonomy and dignity. Germany’s federal government should propose that refugees in Bangladesh and Uganda are offered similar assistance. The host countries would benefit because the money would be spent on site, strengthening the local economies. After ten years at the latest, this basic assistance would be replaced by other forms of assistance, as needed, and UNHCR would withdraw.
Involving More Countries in the Global Asylum System
Both for humanitarian reasons and its own interests, the new federal government should persuade more countries to contribute to the global asylum system. It can cite the Global Compact on Refugees, which was officially adopted on December 17, 2018, with the votes of the 181 countries in the UN General Assembly. Currently, ten countries alone host 80 percent of the world’s refugees. Just 15 countries provide at least $20 million in funding per year to UNHCR (Germany gave around $477 million in 2017). The remaining 180 or so countries are currently not involved or participate only on a very small scale. Countries with low levels of engagement to date should take on more responsibility.
The most striking characteristic of international solidarity with the world’s refugees today is the lack of engagement on the part of emerging economies. Although these have long since ceased to be poor countries, they barely participate in the international humanitarian system. This is especially true of those countries which have, today, reached the standard of living that Germany had in the mid-1960s. Almost 170 countries now have an asylum system, but it is still the case that a small number of countries account for most positive asylum decisions. UNHCR’s annual Global Trends reports provide a picture of the global state of the asylum system. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, between 2013 and 2019:
- 14 million asylum applications were submitted worldwide.
- 4.2 million people worldwide were granted international protection after an asylum process.
- Germany, Sweden, and Austria granted 1.4 million people international protection after an asylum process. That is a third of the total number worldwide, even though these countries collectively make up 1.3 percent of the world’s population.
- More than half of all positive asylum decisions worldwide were taken in European democracies: in EU member states, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Norway.
- Japan granted 657 people protection. China did not grant protection to anyone. Sweden alone granted more people protection – 223,000 – than ten other high-income and middle-income countries with a total population of 3.8 billion people.
Germany’s federal government should make diplomatic efforts to ensure that emerging economies also play their part in the global asylum system. At the same time, it should show, by increasing resettlement, that this does not mean that Germany will turn its back on the protection of refugees. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of people who were granted protection after a procedure to assess their refugee status fell from 900,000 to 530,000 worldwide. This reflects a simple and worrying reality: Fewer potential refugees are reaching countries that are willing and able to grant them international protection.
If this does not change, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has no long-term future as a global standard. Preserving it – and pressing for humane borders both in Europe and worldwide – must be a key aim for the new federal government.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of DGAP Report No. 17 Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.
An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.