With refugee numbers on the rise, German political parties have been wrangling once again over which Balkan states to add to its list of “safe countries of origin.” But whether there is any point to it is another matter.
As conflicts abroad become refugee panics at home, Angela Merkel’s government is reaching for time-worn methods of coping. Germany’s list of “safe” countries of origin was controversially extended last year to include three Balkan states – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia – (already on the list were all European Union states plus Ghana and Senegal). Now the conservative Christian Social Union – the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – would also like to see the other Balkan states – Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro – added to the list.
While the Merkel administration tussles with the smaller partner in its coalition, the Social Democratic Party, over whether to extend the list, the Bavarian cabinet last week went ahead and signed off on plans to build special centers close to its borders to fast-track deportations of Balkan refugees.
Deserving refugees, undeserving migrants
The CSU’s argument – picked up by most of the country’s right-wing press – is that if Germany doesn’t turn away Balkan nationals more quickly, the asylum system will not be able to cope with refugees from war zones in Syria and Iraq. “We have to be able to distinguish between immigrants with a real need of protection and immigrants with no prospect of residence,” said CSU leader and Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer in a speech last week.
“And that’s the point where we say ‘that’s total garbage’,” said Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian refugee council. “They’re opening up a new category by saying some people are refugees from poverty or something – they’re only coming here to scrounge benefits – and the ‘real’ refugees who are being hunted, or are victims of civil war.”
The problem of this easy distinction, though, is that it ignores the plight of marginalized groups, most obviously the Roma and Sinti. “It bypasses the asylum process altogether,” Dünnwald explained. “And if that happens with Roma, for example, it’s a disaster, because in many countries Roma are persecuted.”
Dünnwald has spent many months researching the situations of refugees across the Balkans, especially in Kosovo, and has seen what happens to Roma there. “If they get abused or attacked and they go to the police, the best case scenario is that the police laugh at them and tell them to go home, and in the worst cases they get charged,” he told DW.
Not even Europe is safe
Herbert Heuss, senior advisor at the German Central Council for Sinti and Roma, admits that this isn’t the same kind of political persecution that people experience in Syria or Iraq. But he points out, “If you take into account the cumulative discrimination – being shut out from the health system, the education system, no access to housing, the job market – those are reasons for fleeing that ought to lead to an asylum status in Germany.”
The truth is that there are few places anywhere in Europe where refugees are treated well – whether they’re fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s bombs, or the “Islamic State,” or social discrimination. Earlier this year, Amnesty International reported evacuations of camps in and around Belgrade. “We have seen similar evacuation policies being implemented in Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic – people being sent out of city centers,” said Heuss. “In Romania, in Kluj, people were sent to a camp right next to a garbage dump. This idea of a safe country of origin doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even exist in the EU.” Meanwhile in Germany, there has been an increase in attacks on asylum seekers’ homes.
What does “safe” even mean?
The concept of “safe” countries first took a legal foothold in Germany in the early 1990s – at the end of the Cold War, when borders opened across Eastern Europe, and war erupted in the Balkans. The net result was circumstances very similar to those today. “There was a high number of migrants to Germany – in those days it was refugees and ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet Union, today it is Syria, Kosovo and Albania,” said Rainer Ohliger, board member at Network Migration in Europe, a Berlin-based network of migration academics and workers.
Anyone reading the German news in the past months would also recognize the debates of the early 90s – from the rise in anti-refugee violence to the government’s reaction. “Under the pressure of these large numbers, the debate about housing, the burden on local councils, the same debate as we’re having today, the basic right to asylum was capped,” said Ohliger. “And one of these limitations was the definition of safe countries of origin.”
The list of “safe” countries was created with the help of an article in Germany’s constitution that allowed parliament to introduce a law specifying states “in which, on the basis of their laws, enforcement practices and general political conditions, it can be safely concluded that neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment exists.”
At first, the list included almost every country in Eastern Europe, and they became “safe states” by default when they joined the EU. Now, with Germany steeped in a new refugee panic, the list has been extended once again to include the Balkans.
But whether or not it will make any difference to the number of Balkan asylum seekers being accepted in the EU is another matter. As the government itself admitted on the website of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, last year’s extension of the list was barely more than a symbolic political point: “The Act does not influence the number of positive decisions. This number is however already very low, regardless of the Act. Only 0.3 percent of applicants from Serbia, the FYR of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina received any other than a negative decision in their asylum proceedings in 2014 (January-October).”