Refugees are one of the most debated topics in the campaign before Germany’s election on September 24. The political programs of the seven parties most likely to be elected do all reflect this.
According to its party platform, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) wants to close the borders and largely disband the asylum system rooted in Germany’s Basic Law. The Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), conservative sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wants to cap the number of asylum seekers at 200,000 per year, denying refugees the right to seek asylum if they arrive after that limit is reached. Both proposals would violate international law on the right to fair asylum procedures.
The other five parties support the unconditional right to seek asylum. However, even the platform of the strongest party, the CDU, shows restrictive tendencies, which raises doubts about the chancellor's repeated assurances of adhering strictly to international law.
The center-right party's main goal seems to be to permanently reduce the number of refugees coming to Germany. Declaring the North African countries Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as safe countries of origin is one of the suggested ways of achieving this goal. However, in view of the human rights situation in the Maghreb states these countries could not be said to be presumptively safe for everyone. To presume that asylum seekers from these countries generally will not qualify as refugees, and to push their applications through fast-track procedures carries a real risk that some may be denied the protection they need.
The CDU party platform also calls for the quick deportation of rejected asylum seekers, even to Afghanistan. While this might technically be legal, Afghanistan has been torn apart by armed conflict and general violence for decades, and the sudden arrival of large numbers of deportees is destabilizing to a country without the capacity to reintegrate them. There might very well be people whose lives would not be in immediate danger if they moved to certain areas of the country, but that doesn’t make turning an asylum seeker into an internally displaced person a reasonable or sustainable policy.
Germany should avoid fuelling the very instability it says it wants stopped by deferring deportation of rejected Afghan asylum seekers until it becomes clear how Kabul will cope with the influx. In the meantime, Germany should grant Afghans the most favorable status possible under national law and not detain them.
Since Pakistan deported hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had been there for many years under dubious international legality in 2016, Afghanistan’s capacities are nearly exhausted and a potential humanitarian catastrophe is brewing in parts of the country. A temporary halt in deportations to Afghanistan, at least until the security situation there has fundamentally and durably improved, makes both moral and geopolitical sense.
The CDU's vague plan to enter into agreements with African countries similar to the EU-Turkey Deal is problematic as well. The humanitarian situation in some of these countries is even more precarious than in Turkey, where it is already alarming. The EU-Turkey Deal has led to unacceptable living conditions and emotional distress for hundreds of thousands asylum seekers. They are stranded on the Greek Islands or on dangerous Syrian soil near the closed Turkish border, with no tangible perspective for a dignified life.
Refugees should have safe and legal travel routes. Programs for family reunification offer one way to achieve this. The organized reunification of family members can help avoid dangerous journeys, take business away from people smugglers, and help foster integration. Despite all this, politicians from Merkel's party are expending a lot of energy on keeping organized family reunification to a minimum. This is also reflected in the CDU party platform, which says that family reunification is only possible for people recognized as refugees under the international Refugee Convention.
Under the leadership of CDU Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, the grand coalition of CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), first adopted a policy of granting Syrians a subsidiary form of protection, rather than full refugee status, and then imposed a two-year delay on the right to family reunification. This measure will be renegotiated in March 2018. It remains to be seen whether the CDU's more liberal wing around Merkel will prevail within its own party and what kind of support it might get from its coalition partners.
On paper, the party platforms of the SPD, Alliance 90/The Greens (Grüne), The Left (Linke), and in some parts the Free Democratic Party (FDP) regarding refugee policy are far more liberal. They follow, and in some cases even exceed, the standards laid down in international law. In practice, however, certain politicians from the ranks of SPD (Oppermann), Grüne (Palmer) and Linke (Wagenknecht) have made statements about restrictive immigration, apparently to appeal to AfD voters.
During the crucial time after the elections, potential coalition partners should take a stand and clearly position themselves to help shape any agreement that will set the direction for a potential future coalition government. They should unambiguously commit to uphold the highest standards of protection for asylum seekers and refugees and to expand safe and legal channels, such as family reunification and refugee resettlement. This is the best way to manage an asylum and immigration system that respects human rights and fulfills all relevant obligations.