What Syrians can expect from the new German government
With the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, being sworn in on Wednesday this week, Germany will be governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats (SDP), the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), and the Liberals (FDP) for the next four years. Two months after federal elections were held on September 26, 2021, the three coalition partners presented the so-called “Coalition Contract”[GER only] which traditionally serves as a roadmap for the next four years. Amongst others, this paper states how the new government seeks to shape future migration, asylum, and citizenship policies, foreign relations, as well as justice and accountability efforts.
The section on migration starts with a commitment to end irregular migration, fight the causes of migration, and to stop rejections and suffering at European borders [pp. 138, 141]. The new government further details that it wants to stop people from being used as geopolitical and financial pawns, likely a hint at the current situation at the Polish-Belarussian border. Nonetheless, only a few lines below, it is also said that the new government may seek to have asylum claims assessed in third countries which is a suggestion that was recently made by Denmark and received significant criticism.
The Coalition Contract further states that Frontex, the European border agency, should in the future actively engage in sea rescue and develop into a “proper boarder agency” based on human rights [p.141]. Given, however, that Frontex together with the Greek coast guard is involved in illegal pushbacks at sea, as SJAC’s submission to the International Criminal Court details, this proposal reads like mere wishful thinking. Other plans of the new government are promising. For example, it promises to de-criminalize sea rescue which would instead be coordinated at a European level. But given Greece’s current practice and polices on criminalizing and actively hindering sea rescue these must be welcomed with caution. The Coalition Contract also remains silent on the inhumane condition in refugee camps such as Moria or the newly established prison-like camps in Greece.
As a last point on migration, the new government’s Coalition Contract states that visa procedures for human rights defenders and civil society activists will be accelerated [p.146] and focal points for human rights are to be established at certain German embassies and consulates [p.147].
The new government proposes more concrete measures on how to accelerate the consideration of asylum applications and to make them fairer and provide applicants with more certainty: establish an asylum advisory service to inform asylum seekers about the procedure and eventually speed up the applications as well as to increase the threshold for revocation assessments to focus on applications instead [pp.139f.].
In addition, integration of people coming to Germany shall be eased by providing better targeted, easily accessible courses to all newly arriving people, long-term residents. Children and juveniles shall get more timely access to education [p.139]. Access to health service shall also be eased [p.140] and psychosocial support for all refugees shall be continued [p.139]. A focus on children and juveniles can also be seen from the proposal to widen the scope of family reunifications, nonetheless, also stating that these reunifications always depend on “the capacities of society” [p.140].
A similar limitation can be seen towards the end of the asylum section in the Coalition Contract where it reads that “not everyone coming to Germany can stay”, and that there will be a “deportation offensive” by the new government [p.140]. Particularly people who committed a crime in Germany and those ‘endangering’ civil society are to be deported to their home countries. By informing people about deportation procedures and creating financial support for voluntary returns, the new government seeks to motivate as many people as possible to return to their home countries. However, the new government intends to allow a central federal agency to decide on deportation bans for certain countries [p.140]. These decisions are currently left to the assembly of the Ministers of Interior of the 16 federal states which decided in 2020 to end the deportation ban. This decision left many Syrians in Germany worrying that they might be forced to return to Syria, dependent on whether they reside in a federal state that declines to deport Syrians or not.
As with the bigger context of migration, the new government stresses the need for a joint European solution with regard to asylum policies and procedures and demands far reaching reforms at the European level [p.141].
At another section, the Coalition Contract states that it shall be easier and faster for people to gain permission for a tolerated stay under the new government. This refers to people under the age of 27 [p.138]. Other proposed reforms relating to tolerated stay include [p.138]: one-year probatory residence permits for those who have been residing in Germany for more than five years, as of January 1, 2022; residence permits for people with permission for a tolerated stay who are doing vocational training; and lower and more practicable thresholds regarding verification of identity.
While Germany currently has one of the most restrictive citizenship policies worldwide, the new government says it will allow for dual citizenship [p.118] In addition, citizenship procedures shall be accelerated by allowing for citizenship applications after five years of permanent residency in Germany, and in case of not further defined “special integration achievements” after three years. Settlement permits can be applied for after three years of permanent residency, according to the Coalition Contract. This would require substantial resources to ensure speedy consideration of the increased level of applications.
Foreign policy will be guided by “the commitment to peace, freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and sustainability”, as the Coalition Contract states [p.143]. In more concrete terms regarding Syria and the MENA region, the new government further states that peace and stability in the Middle East are one of its central foreign interests and to be achieved through cooperation with partners in the region and by strengthening political and economic participation of civil society, particularly women and young people [p.155]. Military operations are seen as a last resort and only to be conducted alongside political measures to address conflicts and their causes, and with effective exit strategies in place beforehand [p.150].
It is further stated that the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen must be addressed, and UN-led peace processes need to be supported. Hinting at the importance of transitional justice in the peace process, the new government emphasizes that documentation and prosecution of war crimes are integral parts of any peace process [p.156].
Justice and Accountability
The new government seeks to strengthen cross-border cooperation in police and judicial matters, particularly by developing Europol towards a “European Criminal Office” with its own operative competencies [p.105]. It also wants to support the work of the International Criminal Court, ad-hoc Tribunals, as well as already existing and future UN fact finding missions, and commissions of inquiry to support future justice processes. The new government stresses that impunity for human rights violations must be fought globally [p.147].
On a domestic level, proceedings under the German Code of Crimes against International Law (CCAIL/VStGB) shall be expanded [p.147]. The entire judiciary shall be further digitized and modernized [pp.105f.]. Amongst others, judicial trials are to be carried out more efficiently, and conducted online where applicable. Particularly relevant for universal jurisdiction trials are plans by the new government to always record the trial phase during which evidence [amongst others witness testimonies] is taken in court, and to generally establish additional specialized chambers [p.106]. As the Koblenz Trial showed, chambers specialized in international criminal law are not only needed in terms of substantive legal expertise, but also in applying victim-friendly procedures. Criminal trials shall be made more efficient, faster, and practical. Therefore, in-court questioning of witnesses shall be audio-visually recorded [p.106]. In addition, redacted judgments must be publicly accessible in the future [p.106].
SJAC welcomes promises by the new German government to ease asylum, residency, and citizenship procedures. Given that Syria is far from being safe for Syrians to return, SJAC also welcomes plans to establish a centralized body to determine deportation bans for certain countries, provided that it will thoroughly assess the situations in Syria and Afghanistan and declare them as courtiers that are not safe for returns.
The proposed mandatory recording of criminal trials and publication of redacted judgments are two crucial aspects of creating much needed transparency in universal jurisdiction trials. SJAC also welcomes the new German government’s commitment to expand trials under the Code of Crimes against Interactional Law, including universal jurisdiction trials. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how exactly this commitment will be fulfilled. It will not be enough to simply continue with existing structures. Lessons learned from the Koblenz Trial indicate that criminal procedures must be amended, and financial and staff capacities of courts, police, and prosecution office must be increased.
SJAC further welcomes the proposed support for UN-led fact-finding missions and acknowledgment of the importance of documentation of atrocity crimes for future justice processes and transitional justice. In general, international and regional cooperation proved to be crucial in the global fight for impunity. Intensifying cooperation with and within Europol will further enhance prosecution of international crimes.
However, it remains to be seen how exactly the new government will fulfil the general plans laid out in the Coalition Contract. This is particularly relevant in terms of illegal pushbacks at the European borders, shaping peace and stability in the Middle East, and considering perspectives of Syrians living in Germany and elsewhere in the EU.
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