In general, the number of asylum requests declines in comparison to the preceding year. In 2015, 890,000 refugees were registered; in 2016, only 280,000; in 2017, only 140,000. In comparison to the rest of Europe, Germany remains one of the top destinations: in 2016, Germany had 60% of all asylum requests within the EU-28. The majority of refugees come from acute crisis regions: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are the top three. As in the preceding years, Germany struggles to keep up with the sheer volume of asylum requests. Waiting times can last up to a year longer than the supposed seven months and make a successful integration difficult. Moreover, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) lack resources and personnel to process requests effectively.
Petitions can also make the processing of applications difficult. Between June 30th, 2016 and June 30th, 2017, German courts record more than 320,000 cases. In 2017, the number of deportees sinks by 5.6 percent in comparison to 2016 (23,966). Still, individual cases often come to the public eye. For example, a student of a German occupational school was to be deported to Afghanistan. His peers, however, mounted a resistance to police, eventually resulting in an official lawsuit against the refugee in January. The question persists in German politics, whether Afghanistan can now be considered safe for refugees to return. The same question applies to other countries such as Hungary, which is ultimately deemed unsafe, despite the Dublin system, due to poor living conditions for refugees residing in the country.
Another point of discussion in 2017 is the falsification of information on part of the refugees. Specifically, asylum-seekers might give a false age, as adults and minors are processed differently from a legal standpoint. In 2016 alone, 46,786 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in Germany and, moreover, it is hard to say how many declarations of age were true. Countries propose to screen the age of refugees more exactly by possibly introducing a hand-scan that would reveal the individual’s true biological age. However, this method is met with much criticism, as it is not clear from a medical standpoint how accurate such tests are.
Past transgressions in the country of origin also become part of the debate. German law states that the asylum-seeker may not be deported if they are threatened with the death penalty in their home country (according to the Right to Life, Art. 2, Paragraph 2, Sentence 1). Therefore, the extent of criminal activity is hard to accurately and statistically determine. This leads to cases in which refugees might confess to serious crimes in order to not be deported.
On January 18th, Joachim Gauck gives a speech at the end of his time in office as federal president, in which he calls for tolerance and a unified Europe. At a March 25 summit in Rome, Germany along with the other European nations celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union.
After a failed coup attempt in Turkey in the summer of 2016, a indefinite state of emergency is announced by the Turkish government, which is in turn met with strong criticism from the UN. In the following widespread arrests of 2017, many oppositional activists, judges, and journalists find themselves among the 50,000 people who are affected. In 2018, leading employees of Cumhuriyet (a newspaper critical of the government), are given multi-year prison sentences. This is met with international criticism as the arrests contradict article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In line with two cases (1 and 2) decided by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in which Turkish journalists were arrested, criticism of the government cannot count as terrorist support. Because Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, it is theoretically obligated to accept the ruling of the ECHR.
The organization “Reporters Without Borders,” which fights for international freedom of information, places Turkey at 154 of 180 possible countries in terms of respect for freedom of the press. The course of action against journalists in Turkey affects German journalists as well. 154 Journalists are still in prison, among whom is Deniz Yücel, perhaps the most prominent case.
On February 14th, 2017, Deniz Yücel is arrested in Istanbul. The arrest is based on an interview with the leader of the PKK as well as a later article in which he expresses doubt that Fetullah Gülen was behind the military coup of 2016. He then fights for his freedom for a year, receiving support not only from his family, but from socialites and the social media hashtag #freedeniz as well. For instance, a commemorative motorcade is organized and his book Wir sind ja nicht zum Spaß hier (We’re Not Here To Have Fun) is published. In the evening of the event, German socialites, including Herbert Grönemeyer and Anne Will, read his texts aloud. After a year in Turkish prison, without an official lawsuit, Yücel is released February 16th, 2018. This happens not least due to the pressure and negotiations of German politics as well as increasing public concern. In the same month, the indictment against Yücel is lifted. The indictment, common to many of Yücel’s colleagues who are also detained, references incitement of the masses as well as terrorist propaganda for the banned, Kurdish worker party PKK. The office of the state’s attorney demands 18 years in prison.
On February 17th, the Germanist Borchmeyer publishes his book Was ist deutsch? Eine Nation auf der Suche nach sich selbst (What is German? A Nation on the Search for Itself), in which he tries to pursue the question of national identity.
Violence against refugees sinks in 2017. Already in the first quarter, according to the BKA, there are 93 fewer attacks on refugee homes than the previous year, which had 165. Most of the crimes are registered in Brandenburg.
In April of 2017, President Erdogan calls upon Turkish people living in Germany to vote on the implementation of the new presidential system. However, this provokes much critique, as the new system gives the president more power than ever before. Among many changes, some of the more notable include: the president is allowed to stay party leader, may enact indirect influence on official appointments within the justice system, and is the only one who may declare a state of emergency. In Germany, these changes are viewed critically. Cem Özdemir, leader of the Green Party and son of a Turkish guest-worker (‘Gastarbeiter’), calls upon all those of voting age to vote against the new system. According to official reports, Erdogan wins with just 51.41% of the vote; 63.07% of Turkish expatriates living in Germany vote for the new presidential system.
On the international stage, the vote is seen negatively. The fact that the majority of Turkish expatriates in Germany voted for the new system irritates Germans and casts doubt on the success of German integration programs. Yet, as Prof. Dr. Ferhad Seydar or migration researcher Serhat Karakayali attempt to explain, the problem of integration and identification is much more complex and multi-faceted. Soon, many in Germany doubt the legitimacy of the election results; some accuse the Turkish government of spying on Germany’s Turkish population, while others suspect voter fraud.
Also in April, it is discovered that a German Bundeswehr soldier had fraudulently registered himself as a refugee with the goal of carrying out an attack in order to demonstrate the supposed danger of asylum seekers. The federal courts ultimately acquit him. The case provokes a discussion about proper and effectives procedures for processing asylum requests and ultimately results in retroactive checks for over 85,000 applications.
At the end of April, German Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière publishes his theses on German mainstream culture (“Leitkultur” in German, directly translated as “leading culture”). In the end, the CDU-politician earns more criticism than praise; his theses are not seen as entirely constructive.
On July 30, gay marriage is legalized in Germany as a majority of the Bundestag votes for marriage equality.
On the 7th and 8th of July, the G-20 Summit takes place. Argentina, Australia, Brasil, China, Germany, France, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the USA meet to discuss a variety of pressing global issues. In Hamburg, multiple demonstrations take place as protestors demand a more just process of globalization as well as more attention towards issues like climate change. Some protests are peaceful, others turn more violent, in which radical protestors acting independently burn cars, tear down police barricades, loot local business and destroy property. Police are also attacked. As a result, 40 million euros are made available for compensation. There are multiple arrests and just three weeks after the G-20 Summit, there are still 35 detainees who are suspected to have been involved in the riots. The leftist organization “Rote Flora” (“Red Flora”) is at first also blamed for the violent protests, but the investigation is soon dropped, as there is little substantial evidence of their involvement that could back up the public accusations.
On July 23rd, ex-politican and Vietnamese businessman Trinh Xuan Thanh is kidnapped by Vietnamese intelligence in Germany, which is a violation of German and international law. At the beginning of 2018, Trinh Xuan Thanh is sentenced in Hanoi to two life sentences for economic crimes.
On July 30th, a 34-year-old Iraqi open fires in a club in Constance, Germany. It is later established as an out-of-control family conflict, but not before provoking anxieties about criminal refugees on social media.
At the end of August, AfD-politician Alexander Gauland is the target of much criticism and is denounced by the presiding judge of the Federal Court of Justice for incitement to hatred. Other AfD members stir up controversy as well, none less than Björn Höcke, who described Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument to shame.”
On October 3rd, the new Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier gives the yearly speech on the Day of German Unity, in which he urges, “Our path must remain in peace and friendship with our European neighbors—it can never be a return to nationalism!” He also commemorates the life of a politician, “who recognized the historical opportunity of the hour and facilitated unification in the political sphere”; Steinmeier is speaking of Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor from 1982 until 1998, who died in 2017 at 87 years old, his passing commemorated by the first-ever lowering of the European Union flag. Roman Herzog, German President from 1994-1999, also passed away in 2017.
Also in October, the special council Bruno Jost, who was hired to investigate the 2016 terror attack on a Berlin Christmas market, publishes his findings: incompetence, unprofessionalism and general inadequacy on the side of German police and officials all contributed to the terrorist’s ability to carry out his attack.
In another major political event, the 23rd conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Bonn from November 6-17.
On November 23rd, Fatih Akin’s most recent film “Aus dem Nichts” (“In The Fade”) opens in theaters. Based on a xenophobic attack, the film portrays the fictional story of a German woman who loses her Kurdish husband and son. Akin receives much praise for the film and wins a Golden Globe for best foreign film. Films like “Aus dem Nichts” demonstrate the complexity of issues related to immigration and forbids thinking in terms of black and white.
Throughout 2017, four important elections take place: in the Netherlands (March), France (June), Germany (September) and Austria (October). In Germany, voter participation is at 75%. The results show an increase in support for the right-populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) with 12.9% of the vote, thus earning them 94 of 709 seats in German Parliament. Reasons for this include a pervasive fear of refugees and the AfD’s platform against political correctness.
The formation of government proves itself difficult, as the election winner, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has few coalition partners. The only possible allies, the center-left Greens and the libertarian-leaning FDP, are unable to find common ground with the CDU. After the failure of the potential coalition between the three, named “Jamaica” for short, rumors of a snap election circulate. As a solution, a “grand coalition,” nicknamed “GroKo,” is proposed, whose fate eventually starts to look like the outcome of the previous attempt.
For a time it appears that neither a “GroKo” nor a “Jamaica” coalition are options for the government. The grand coalition between the SPD and the conservative alliance of CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is only able to form the final government after difficult negotiations leading to agreement in multiple areas. The arduous path to forming a government also produces the word of the year, “Jamaika-Aus” (“Jamaica-Exit”), to refer to the breakdown of coalition talks in November when FDP leader Christian Lindner abruptly dropped out. The buzzword or faux-pas neologism of the year (“Unwort”) of the year, “Alternative Fakten,” is similarly of political origin.
The overall picture, at any rate, is of a more and more politically divided Germany, mirroring trends in neighboring countries France, Austria, and the Netherlands, where an ascendant anti-immigrant far-right casts the centrist parties as an elitist establishment with varying degrees of electoral success.
There is significant overlap between this far-right and the “euroskeptic” and anti-EU positions of different parties, not only in parts of Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary, but also Western European parties like Front National in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Lega Nord in Italy.
On the other hand, one pro-European sign is provided by centrist Emanuel Macron’s victory in France’s presidential elections and his movement “En Marche.” At his victory speech, Macron walks out to the anthem of Europe, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” before the traditional performance of “La Marseillaise.” In doing so he sent a clear signal to Europe.
The year 2016 shows a decrease in the volume of refugees, due to support programs, international initiatives, strengthened borders and increasingly pervasive nationalist sentiments. According to a summary of the year by Die Welt, it is estimated that 200,000-305,000 new asylum-seekers are taken in Germany in the first eleven months of 2016, almost 600,000 less than in 2015. However, 745,545 asylum applications are submitted, which is 268,869 more than in 2015. Despite the increase in applications, the rate of rejected asylum applications also increases from the previous year, with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) telling reporters, “We’ve been successful in managing and controlling the process of migration.”
By the end of October, it is estimated that 206,200 people living in Germany are technically required to leave, 153,700 of which possess, however, a suspension of deportation. 23,750 people are deported from Germany by the end of November, almost 3,000 more than in the preceding year (20,888). Around 55,000 people returned willingly with financial help from Germany. Around 19,720 people were denied entry into Germany in the first eleven months.
According a report by Der Spiegel, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) becomes more efficient in 2016. It increases its staff from 2,300 in early 2015 to 8,000 by September 2016. However, despite this marked increase in bureaucratic organs and efficiency, the volume of pending applications increases to over half a million.
On January 1st, 2016, a group of immigrants predominantly from Iraq, Syria, Morocco, robs and sexually assaults dozens of women during the New Year’s Eve celebration in the Cologne central train station. Questions surrounding the country of origin of the perpetrators begin to arise. It remains unclear as to the number of perpetrators, whether the attacks were premeditated and if there is any connection to refugees. Communication is reportedly inefficient between police, the media and the public, resulting in Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers’s forced resignation. Despite the police’s pronouncement that there is little evidence for a connection to refugees, a number of government officials, including Angela Merkel, connect the incident to the ongoing “refugee crisis,” calling for stronger immigration laws and processing procedures.
On February 3rd, the Federal Cabinet (Das Bundeskabinett) introduces a second package of refugee regulations and laws: Asylum Package II (Asylpaket II). In this package, family reunification is prevented if the refugee doesn’t meet the request for asylum, yet is still not deported due to a persistent threat of torture or persecution in the country of origin. An exception is made for Syrian refugees. The package also attempts to make the processing of asylum applications more efficient and names Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia ‘safe countries of origin’ (‘sichere Herkunftsstaaten’). The package is adopted on February 25th. On February 4th, Angela Merkel attends the London conference “Supporting Syria and The Region.” Germany commits 2.3 billion euros, spread over three years, towards solving the ‘refugee crisis’; 1.2 billion euros are immediately donated towards humanitarian aid programs, with another 1.1 billion euros saved for 2017 and 2018. On top of this, Germany commits 200 million euros to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and its “Partnership for Prospects” program whose aim is to make job opportunities accessible for refugees in the Middle East. The project “Wir Zusammen” (Us Together) is also founded with initially 36 companies investing in creating jobs and initiatives that support refugees. By September, the program will have created 1,800 internships, 500 training positions and more than 400 full-time positions, numbers deemed too small by Angela Merkel at a summit for German companies the same month.
Just before the EU-Summit in Brussels on the 18th and 19th of February, Angela Merkel gives a statement in which she sets the goal of reducing refugees by building programs and infrastructure abroad as well as of reaching a deal between the EU and Turkey. At the EU-Summit, a number of conclusions are reached: borders must be reinforced and protected, NATO and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) should cooperate in reconnaissance and surveillance efforts, and the EU-Turkey Action Plan is reemphasized as a priority in preventing smuggling networks.
Starting in February, membership in the far-right Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) group, which had filled the streets of Dresden with 25,000 anti-migrant protesters exactly one year prior, begins to dwindle. By the end of 2016, PEGIDA members may number in the hundreds.
On February 24th, Austria hosted the “Managing Migration Together” conference, where the Western Balkan states met, with the somewhat explicit and controversial exclusion of Germany, Greece, and representatives of the European Union.
On March 8th, Turkey and the EU discuss and eventually sign an agreement on March 20th, that follows a “one-in, one-out” policy; for every Syrian migrant deported to Turkey due to insufficient documentation or a rejected asylum claim, one Syrian in Turkey is resettled in the EU. Moreover, the EU is to expedite the distribution of its €3 billion aid-package to Turkey and to reconsider Turkey’s bid to join the EU in July. The deal’s implementation, however, is weak; only 1,187 migrants are returned to Turkey by early December. On March 9th, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia—the migrant corridor—effectively close down their borders in an effort to bring the situation under control. Only refugees with valid papers and a visa are allowed to travel through and must declare the country into which they are travelling to be their desired place of residence. This leaves 60,000 migrants and refugees stuck in Greece or a cycle of deportations between various countries. Although it does decrease the volume of refugees in the migrant corridor, other more dangerous routes are then explored, including the Mediterranean Sea. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, announces that Germany will not cap the number of asylum seekers it can take in, for which she faces increasing political pressure.
Despite the attacks in Cologne, there is a reported drop of more than 18 percent in crimes committed by immigrants in the first three months of 2016. Conversely, migrants increasingly become targets and victims of hate crimes and criminal activity, with 3,533 attacks on refugees and refugee homes. Of these, 921 attacks on refugee homes were recorded by the Federal Office of Criminal Activity (BKA), 857 of which were perpetrated by the radical right.
In April, BAMF director Frank-Jürgen Weise highlights another problem facing the administration: integration and education. Weise estimates that there will be a shortfall of 200,000 spots in integration courses in 2016. To counteract the shortcomings of the education system, the government increases the pay rate for teachers on July 1st, in order to keep incentive up for teachers facing an overwhelming volume of students. On April 9th, around 500 refugees hailing from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Syria drown in the Mediterranean as a smuggler-ship capsizes. A report by Reuters and BBC in December details the lack of accountability virtually everywhere; neither the smugglers, nor any political body have been held responsible in what is the deadliest known shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 2016.
On June 23rd, the United Kingdom votes on withdrawal from membership in the European Union, dubbed “Brexit.” The referendum passes, upsetting media expectations and sending shockwaves throughout Europe and the world. After the fact, conventional wisdom, including in Germany, attributes the surprise result to anti-immigrant sentiment stoked in no small part by the liberal EU refugee policies championed by Angela Merkel.
Artists concerned about the anti-immigrant backlash and government reticence attempt to address the issue in provocative ways. In July, the Berlin-based Center for Political Beauty announce a performance art piece to protest EU restrictions on entry without a visa called “Eating Refugees,” which they say will involve flying 100 refugees from Turkey to be eaten by tigers. The performance never takes place. Artists, primarily in Berlin, also reach out to Syrian refugee artists already in Germany to help integrate them into the art scene and give their voices broader exposure, including refugee musicians like the band Musiqana and the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra.
On July 18th, an underage, registered refugee carries out a terror attack in a train heading towards Würzburg. The following week, on July 24th, a 27-year old Syrian asylum-seeker suicide-bombed a wine bar in Ansbach. These two attacks intensified the debate around refugee politics and raised questions about the connection between immigration and terrorism.
At the beginning of August, Turkish officials are pulled out of Greece who are there to help Greek migration bureaucracy, thereby signaling an intensification of migration politics between Turkey and the EU. German Interior Ministers of the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU) issue a joint statement, in which they call for the prohibition of burkas in public spaces.
While PEGIDA’s membership thins, momentum for the anti-migrant, anti-Islam parliamentary party Alternative for Germany (AfD) continues to rise. In September the AfD comes in second to the Social Democrats (SPD) in regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, leaving the CDU in third at 19%, a record low for the Christian Democrats in the state. The AfD, which has no official relationship with PEGIDA but can count many of its supporters as members of PEGIDA as well, surges into the state parliaments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Baden-Württemberg, and the dominant media interpretation attributes the losses for both the CDU and SPD to the AfD’s opposition to migration.
In September, there is another EU-Summit, which results in the unofficial, pessimist-realistic slogan “flexible Solidarität,” denoting a shift towards the self-interest of nation states and away from communal EU politics with regards to the “refugee crisis.”
At the beginning of October, the EU signs a deal with Afghanistan that attempts to provide monetary incentive for refugees and immigrants to return to Afghanistan; the deal provokes protests on the left with the claim that Afghanistan is not yet safe enough. The immediate goal of the program is around 12,000 deported asylum-seekers. Germany invests 150,000 million euros in the program Perspektive Heimat for the next three years.
On November 9th, Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, shocking commentators the world over and drawing immediate rebuke from the German press. Der Spiegel devotes the first of many grotesque magazine covers to Trump, declaring “the end of the world (as we know it)” and explaining the threat of a Trump presidency to liberal democracy in numerous op-eds. During the campaign Trump said of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, referring to her softer stance on immigration and refugees, that she “wants to be America’s Merkel.”
On December 19th, Anis Amri, a migrant from Tunisia who was denied asylum, drives a van through a Christmas market and hits the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in what later was deemed as a terror attack. This attack reinvigorates discussions concerning the ‘refugee crisis,’ with calls for stronger borders and governance. In October of 2017, Der Spiegel reports on a private investigation of the Berlin police department and justice system; the blame for the attack is placed on both the police (for their failure to monitor a flagged person of interest) and the general court system for not effectively removing Amri for possession and distribution of drugs.