Germany: A New Immigration Bill Threatens Civil Society

Germany proudly calls itself a “Rechtsstaat”, a state based on justice and integrity that respects the rule of law. However, a new draft bill by Germany’s interior minister that intends, among others, to criminalize migrant helpers suggests otherwise.

Frustrated at its failure to deport almost one in two rejected asylum seekers, the German government is stepping up its efforts to send those people out of the country. On 13 February, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) presented a 74-page draft bill named “Geordnete-Rückkehr-Gesetz”, which translates approximately to “Orderly Return Law”.

The bill would introduce “preparatory detention” before deportation and allow authorities to detain rejected asylum seekers without a court's decision – which is unconstitutional. In addition, the grounds for detention would be expanded (on the assumption that individuals might abscond) and standards of detention would be lowered (individuals who have not committed any crime may land in prison). Clearly, Mr. Seehofer has not read our article on alternatives to immigrant detention and the damaging effects of detention.

Furthermore, Germany’s interior minister wants to make it more difficult for people to receive Tolerated Stay Permits (“Duldung”), a status that allows its beneficiaries to work and participate in vocational training. If it were up to Mr. Seehofer, individuals from “safe countries of origin” would generally be denied a Duldung, discriminating solely on the basis of nationality.

That Germany’s interior minister is favoring tough migration policies is nothing new. What is new, however, is that he is now also targeting civil society.

Criminalization of civil society – now also in Germany?

We have seen an increasing number of EU states criminalizing migrant helpers. In France, an immigration law threatens anyone who “attempts to facilitate the illegal entry, movement or residence of a foreigner’ with up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of €30,000; in Hungary, virtually any support for refugees is a criminal offense; Italy’s new government has told NGOs they're forbidden from rescuing people in the Mediterranean; and the list goes on. Now, the virus has infected Germany.

Mr. Seehofer’s draft law – lovingly called the “fuck-off-law” by activists – stipulates that anyone who publishes and disseminates dates or periods of deportation flights, whether via newsletter or over social media, shall be punished with up to three years of prison. This form of censorship is contrary to human rights law, to the freedom of expression and of the press, as per Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This measure is clearly related to the highly controversial evictions of Afghan nationals. Hundreds of Afghans have been deported to their war-ravaged country and deportation flights continue in 2019. This is what makes the proposal to criminalize the publication of deportation dates so problematic. The evictions to Afghanistan are the object of an important public debate and are a reason for numerous demonstrations at airports.

In addition, the publication of deportation dates also gives people the opportunity to file an appeal in court. Unlawful deportations are often stopped by judicial intervention. According to the German organization Pro Asyl, the Federal Court of Justice has corrected every third decision in deportation cases since 2015.

Most recently, the Federal Constitution Court stopped in extremis the deportation of an Ethiopian father of two who had been living in Germany for over five years and had completed a professional training.

Unlawful deportations can have dire consequences for those affected, especially if they are returned to a state where they will be persecuted. The announcement of a planned deportation flight may therefore be essential for the legal protection of the persons concerned.

Criminalizing human rights activists can discourage people to help others. We have gotten used to see the shrinking space of civil society in Hungary. Now that the virus has reached Germany, we must ensure that it is countered decisively from the beginning.