Many rejected asylum seekers are in limbo as they can not return to their country of origin | Photo: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture-alliance
Many rejected asylum seekers are in limbo as they can not return to their country of origin | Photo: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture-alliance

Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government has begun to overhaul Germany's immigration system to allow more migrants to stay in the country. Refugee rights organizations say the measures don't go far enough.

The German government is hoping to give over 130,000 migrants trapped in legal limbo the chance to stay permanently, as part of an overhaul of Germany's immigration system.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government on Wednesday agreed on a package of reforms that will open the prospect of residency rights to people who have lived in Germany for more than five years with a so-called "Duldung," or tolerance status.

"We are a diverse immigration country. Now we want to become a better integration country," wrote Interior Minister Nancy Faeser from Scholz's center-left Social Democrat SPD on Twitter. "I want to actively shape migration and integration instead of reluctantly administering them as I have done for the past 16 years," she continued in reference to the previous conservative government's policies.

A Duldung is normally issued to people who have been refused asylum but who can't return to their home country for various reasons: These might include the threat of war or arrest in their home country, pregnancy or serious illness, or because they are studying or in job training in Germany. Legally, however, they remain obliged to leave the country and live under the threat of deportation.

Asylum gray zone

A Duldung is only valid for a short time, and people can be granted the status several times in a row often with no prospect of being allowed to work. Under the new scheme, proposed by Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, people who have had a Duldung for five years (as of January 1, 2022), could be eligible for one-year residency status, during which time they have to prove a willingness to integrate: which in practice would mean learning German and finding a job capable of securing their income.

Such migrants would have to meet certain conditions: Anyone convicted of a serious crime, applied for asylum under a false identity, or submitted multiple applications, would be barred from the option. There are exceptions to the criminal conviction rule: crimes that were punished with a low fine or in a young offenders' court will be overlooked.

Karl Kopp, director for European affairs at the refugee rights organization Pro Asyl, said he has met many people caught in this legal limbo. "Imagine you have tolerance status, you have family, you have children in school here who speak fluent German, who grew up here," he told DW. "And at some point all you want is a status that makes it clear that you belong to this country. All you want is for the uncertainty to stop."

"Many others live with a concrete fear for years: The police are going to come to deport them. This drains them of energy and causes a lot of suffering," he said.

Kopp also said he knew of many cases of people with tolerance status who have job training places, and their employers have to fight to allow them to stay in the country.

The government integration commissioner, Reem Alabali-Radovan, wrote on Twitter that the new legislation would be a bridge to a better life for around 135,000 people in Germany. "We are reshaping Germany as a modern immigration country. A first important step: With the right of residence, there will finally be fair prospects for all those who have been living here on a tolerated basis for 5+ years. We are also opening up access to integration courses for everyone."

Opposition politicians have voiced criticism. Alexander Throm, domestic policy spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said that the government's plans would create "massive incentives" for illegal immigration to Germany. "On top of that, the coalition is undermining asylum law with this initiative," Throm told the RND news network.

Green Party co-leader Omid Nouripour defended the measure, claiming that it would help ease Germany's acute shortage of skilled workers. "We are opening new prospects for people," he told the Funke media network. "Part of that is a modern immigration law based on a points system. For that reason, it's right that this draft law will also consolidate regulations from the skilled labor immigration law."

"There has to be a difference between whether an asylum procedure ends with protection status or whether an asylum application is rejected," he added. "But if a rejected application also leads to being allowed to stay in Germany permanently, then the asylum procedure itself becomes largely pointless."

Plans to overhaul the German immigration system include naturalization | Photo: Winfried Rothermel/picture-alliance
Plans to overhaul the German immigration system include naturalization | Photo: Winfried Rothermel/picture-alliance

Baby steps towards integration

Refugee organizations have applauded the government's general approach, but remain skeptical of the execution. "We welcome the intention to give over 100,000 people a regular status," said Kopp of Pro Asyl. "But we also point out a few problems where we think the legislation needs to be more precise."

For one thing, Kopp says it's too tough to force people to try to fulfill the necessary conditions for residency within a year or risk falling back into tolerance status. " We'd like to see more humanitarian flexibility," he said. "It could easily be that someone goes out looking for a job but doesn't succeed because of the economic situation." He also said he'd like to see the new law include a provision stopping the threat of deportation for anyone eligible for residency under the new scheme.

Integration Commissioner Alabali-Radovan stressed that this current package was just "the first milestone," and that more plans would be implemented before the end of the year, including measures allowing migrants better access to the job market and naturalization.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Author: Ben Knight

First published: July 6, 2022

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