Corona and the situation of refugees in Germany

Restrictions on movement and contact, border closures, travel bans – the Covid 19 pandemic also means considerable limitations on civil liberties and fundamental rights in Germany. Many measures, however, particularly affect refugees.

On 16 March the European Union closed its external borders. Although the application for asylum was supposed to be one of the exceptions to entry permits, de facto the official border crossings for asylum seekers remained largely insurmountable. The EU is also stepping up the surveillance at „green“ and „blue“ borders. The border agency Frontex has suspended some of its operations, for example in the Western Balkans, because of the Corona crisis. But on the other hand, Frontex has extended its missions in Greece, which has seen a high number of arrivals of refugees due to tensions with Turkey, by two „Rapid Border Interventions“ at the Evros border river and in the Aegean Sea. At the beginning of April, the governments involved also suspended the „Malta deal“ for sea rescue in the central Mediterranean. Rescued persons are no longer being redistributed to the states willing to receive them; this affects a total of 731 refugees, most of whom were supposed to come to Germany. Malta and Italy completely closed their ports to private rescue vessels a little later, only with much public pressure could 150 rescued persons from the German ship „Alan Kurdi“ disembark in Malta in mid-April, most of the others were brought back by the Libyan coast guard – even from waters for which Malta is responsible.

Asylum applications down significantly

Internal border controls, also introduced in most Schengen member states from mid-March, have made it even more difficult to apply for protection in countries like Germany. By the beginning of May, more than 123,000 persons had been turned away at German borders for various reasons. As a result, the number of asylum applications has also dropped considerably. In the first four months of this year, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has registered about 30,000 initial applications, which is 29 per cent less than in the same period last year. The Malta based asylum agency EASO has recorded an even sharper decline for the EU as a whole, by 43 per cent between February and March. One day after the EU border closures, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have also suspended the Resettlement Procedure for the emergency reception of refugees from countries such as Libya or Lebanon worldwide. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) has subsequently extended the suspension of the Resettlement to the EU-Turkey deal.

The restrictions imposed worldwide in the Corona crisis also lead to constraints on German representations abroad. Among other things, this affects family reunifications, for example by not allowing relatives to receive appointments or to collect their visas as promised. But even with a visa, crossing the border into Europe is more difficult. Although the entry of married couples has been an exception as “ legitimate reason“ since the border was closed in Germany, the German Federal Police decided on this in each individual case.

Slow stop of deportations

The closure of internal borders also has an impact on Dublin deportations, when persons concerned are to be taken to countries responsible for their asylum application. The procedure must take place within a period of six months, otherwise responsibility for the asylum procedure will be transferred to the country in which the applicant is staying after the deadline has expired. In order to avoid this, the BAMF quickly froze the transfer deadlines in the Corona crisis. However, the Dublin III Regulation does not provide for such a suspension, and moreover, it contradicts the existing requirement for speeding up the asylum procedure.

The German Federal Ministry of the Interior has found it more difficult to suspend deportations, which it decided only one week after the closure of the EU borders for European countries and Afghanistan. In the middle of the Corona crisis, according to the ministry, an intensive traffic with deportees was not to be maintained. The police officers needed for deportations were therefore dealing with „priority protection tasks“ for the German population. A plane chartered by the Federal Police for mid-April, with which a 25-year-old woman was supposed to be deported to Togo, however, was only cancelled on 3 April „for organisational reasons“. The plans had caused criticism, because stricter entry conditions were already in force in Togo.

Military planned in front of refugee shelters

Already in March, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, had called on its member states to examine the release of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants from deportation detention. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, their detention can only be lawful as long as a soon deportation can effectively take place. Furthermore, detention centres provide poor opportunities to protect against infections. In Germany, the release from migration prisons is handled differently in the federal states. While the government of Lower Saxony already closed the deportation prison in Langenhagen near Hanover on March 19 until further notice and released all inmates, a 16-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo was the only one who had to remain in the detention facility at Frankfurt Airport. His asylum application had been rejected in the so-called airport proceedings as „obviously unfounded“. The BAMF considers him to be of age despite his documentary evidence.

The feared outbreak of Covid-19 in German asylum centres did not occur in the beginning of the Corona crisis. Anyway, at the end of March, 50 refugees had demonstrated in Bremen, keeping a wide space between each other, against the lack of hygienic conditions. They were charged under the Infection Protection Act for not observing „minimum distances“. After Corona infections, some of them massive, occurred in shelters throughout Germany in April, the authorities reacted with quarantine. To enforce the measures, the state showed its teeth: 17 youths in the primary reception centre for refugees in Suhl (Thuringia) , who had „roughly“ resisted the quarantine orders, were taken to a youth detention centre with the help of water cannon, an armoured vehicle and a SWAT team. Six asylum seekers from North Rhine-Westphalia were locked up by the authorities in the deportation prison in Büren to enforce their quarantine. Baden-Württemberg wanted to break a taboo by having the German Armed Forces take over the guarding of the quarantined refugee facility in Ellwangen. Nearly 400 soldiers would have taken over police duties, 400 more were to monitor contact restrictions in public space – an unprecedented idea in Germany. The applications were withdrawn, presumably because a similar request from Thuringia for 10 soldiers was rejected by the Ministry of Defence.

Only 47 children and young people from Greek refugee camps relocated

From the end of April onwards, many complaints against the cramped conditions of forced accommodation in the refugee shelters were successful. The Dresden Administrative Court (VG) has ruled in favour of an asylum seeker who is about to give birth, stating that she does not have to continue living in the initial reception centre in Dresden. Similarly, the Administrative Court of Leipzig ruled in favour of an asylum seeker in summary proceedings, stating that the principles of the Saxon Corona Regulation also apply to asylum accommodation and that the minimum distance to other persons must be maintained there. In the same week, the Dresden Administrative Court already ordered the release of a 20-year-old refugee from Gaza.

While a largely right-wing milieu against the Corona measures has formed in Germany since the end of March, left-wing activists have largely accepted the restrictions. Nevertheless, left-wingers have also demonstrated regularly, creatively and sometimes in small numbers, but nevertheless en masse.In contrast to the conspiracy „hygiene demonstrations“ or right-wing „walks“, it is not an alleged „Merkel dictatorship“ that drives them onto the streets, but solidarity with refugees. Unfortunately the protests under the motto „Leave no one behind“ were not very successful. Only 47 unaccompanied children and adolescents from Greek refugee camps were brought to Germany and distributed among the federal states. A total of ten EU Member States had declared themselves ready to accept them, but this process has also stalled due to the Corona pandemic.

Image: Police ending Protest in solidarity with refugees in Dresden (Mark Feilitzsch).


Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.