Symposium focuses on future of refugee protection in Germany, EU

News Stories, 23 June 2004

© Ch.Ditsch
Germany's Federal President, Johannes Rau, addressing the UNHCR symposium in Berlin.

BERLIN, June 23 (UNHCR) With Germany on the brink of passing a new immigration act, Federal President Johannes Rau has outlined the draft law's strengths and weaknesses. He also stressed the importance of harmonising asylum policy in the European Union, which UNHCR has warned should not converge on the lowest common denominator.

The statements were made at the Berlin Symposium on Refugee Protection that ended on Tuesday. The two-day event aimed to strengthen the exchange between refugee law experts, government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Organised by UNHCR and the Berlin Evangelical Academy in cooperation with refugee organisations, it drew 400 participants to discuss the planned German immigration act and the asylum system of the enlarged EU.

According to President Rau, the years of discussions on a new asylum and immigration law in Germany made clear just "how tenacious and difficult the implementation of certain perceptions is". However, as a result of the debate on immigration legislation, German society has commonly acknowledged that immigration is required and must be steered, he noted.

"The immigration law should bring about significant legislative improvements for both refugees in the sense of the 1951 Refugee Convention and for those who enjoy subsidiary protection," President Rau said of the draft law.

He placed particular importance on the regulations relating to the establishment of "hardship commissions" throughout the German federal states to decide on individual cases for humanitarian reasons. He also emphasised rules enabling improved protection for victims of non-state and gender-specific persecution.

However, there are some questions on refugee protection which remain inadequately clarified and which must now be tackled "with accelerated velocity", he said. The need to act swiftly can be viewed in the numerous "old cases", namely cases that involve people requiring protection yet who have often been living in Germany for years without a safe, long-term residence status.

The NGO representatives at the meeting also stressed that the status of these people who have been living in Germany under "toleration" time limitation i.e. with non-permanent status due to humanitarian reasons must be clarified and that their situation must be improved. They demanded a right to remain for these persons.

"We are subject to de facto prohibition on employment and our children are subject to de facto educational and training bans," stated a refugee with regard to "tolerated persons".

UNHCR underlined that the draft law contains positive elements, such as improved protection for the victims of gender-related and non-state persecution, but the agency also remarked that certain aspects remain problematic.

On the significance of harmonised EU asylum policy, President Rau said, "In the absence of common regulations governing EU asylum policy, there would be no area of freedom, security and justice. The creation of this area is a task equally significant to that of the common market." He demanded that refugee policy be more firmly embedded in general migration policy in the long term, adding that the distinction between flight from persecution and migration based on other factors should not be blurred.

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
A refugee demonstration in Berlin's historic centre. They demanded a right to remain for the large group of persons living with a "toleration permit" and criticised the government's deportation policy.

UNHCR's Director of the Europe Bureau, Raymond Hall, emphasised that the first phase of the EU asylum harmonisation is a mere framework which requires padding out by states. "It should be kept in mind that the [EU] Directives are intended to set minimum standards only and are not to be read as a prescription for convergence around the lowest common denominator," he stressed.

He also raised concerns that some EU member states may become overburdened in the context of the Dublin II Regulation which determines the responsibilities of member states: "New EU member states should be particularly affected, as they are largely located at the EU's external border. They do not have the resources or capacity to deal with a large increase in asylum claims or the integration of the majority of persons in need of international protection."

He expressed hopes that EU member states can focus on further responsibility and burden-sharing in the second phase of the harmonisation of European asylum systems, for which the European Council on November 5 will be important, as EU governments may set guiding principles for the future of EU asylum policy.