By René Wildangel, ECFR
Germany is a safe haven for Syrians for now – but a government decision to lift the ban on sending refugees back to Assad’s Syria would have catastrophic consequences.
Germany’s state interior ministers and federal interior minister Seehofer will meet this week to decide whether to continue the country’s ban on deporting Syrian refugees. This comes at a time when the situation in Syria is more hopeless than ever: a fragile ceasefire in Idlib; ongoing human rights violations by the Syrian government; a total absence of reconstruction; a further economic implosion exacerbated by the collapse of the financial system in neighbouring Lebanon; and an intensified US pressure campaign. A mere glance at this bleak picture should be enough to guide the ministers away from the idea of involuntary return of Syrians.
This debate has been toxic in Germany ever since the arrival of 790,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. Since then, voices on the political right have demanded that refugees return to Syria as soon as possible. Unsurprisingly, the Alternative for Germany party, which has been growing in strength on the back of an anti-Islamic and anti-immigration ideology, has been actively arguing, both in and outside the German parliament, for returns to begin once the war has ended; Assad’s recent Russian-backed military ‘victory’ has led them to increase these calls. But, even beyond the extremists, mainstream German politicians too have nurtured the illusion that the decrease of military activity in Syria means that the refugees can eventually go back to their home country. But, for most of those who fled, a return to Assad’s Syria is a dangerous and insecure prospect that is not currently a viable option for them. The fear of conscription, arrest, and torture hangs over all potential returnees.
The last few years have seen the right wing in Germany and across Europe tell a tale of growing societal erosion and Islamist attacks. But the reality is that the integration of Syrians is actually going smoothly. A whole generation of Syrians is building a new life, career, and family in Germany – and they are doing so in a fashion that is having immensely positive social and economic effects on Germany. This new Syrian community is overwhelmingly young (24 years old on average) and well educated (70 percent hold a school diploma). More than 100,000 Syrians are already in employment, while others are pursuing their language proficiency and pursuing their education. While Germany spends billions on their integration, the German economy is already profiting economically from their presence.
But the German government is reluctant to present this as a success story, and instead appears intent on demonstrating its ‘toughness’ by deporting refugees to other countries in order to appease voters drawn to the political right. At the moment there are no forced deportations to Syria, but hundreds of Afghan refugees have already been forced back to their war-torn home country since 2016, including those who had integrated well and started a new life in Germany.
While this debate rumbles on, Syrian refugees are not sitting back to await their fate. A large group of Syrian human rights activists and community organisers based in Germany have begun addressing the grave abuses committed by the Assad regime. They are building their own organisations and are working to advance justice through legal means, specifically by activating the application of universal jurisdiction. Germany incorporated international criminal justice into its legal system in 2002. With the help of German and international lawyers, including the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, the activists brought forward criminal charges that led to an arrest warrant by the German Federal Court of Justice against Jamil Hassan, until July 2019 head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service.
Recently the first trial on Syrian state torture started at the Germany’s Higher Regional Court in Koblenz. Two former officials from the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate are charged with complicity in 4,000 cases of torture, 58 murders, and cases of rape and sexual assault. Some of their victims today reside in Europe, and a number were present in the courtroom. Syrian lawyers and prominent human rights activists, such as Anwar al-Bunni and Mazen Darwish, who live in Germany, are trying to advance transitional justice, while many of the perpetrators charged with crimes against humanity still hold positions in the Syrian regime. These efforts are not only a step towards justice in Syria – they are also a valuable contribution to Germany’s political culture.
When the ministers of interior of the German states debate the current ban on deportations to Syria this week, they should consider these developments as well as the bleak situation in Syria. So far, the German Foreign Office has pushed back against softening the deportation ban: no part of Syria is safe for returnees, said one of its reports in 2019. But at the last session of the interior ministries in December, they commissioned the federal government to start creating the possibility to deport criminal offenders and persons that “threaten public safety” – a pernicious call, as this group would also face unfair trial and arbitrary violence upon return to Syria.
Ministers must now reject any proposal to shift position. They should make a clear stand on rejecting deportations to Syria – and other war-torn countries, including Afghanistan – because of the threats there to the rights and safety of the refugees. The government should communicate the success stories of protection and integration instead of giving in to those who incite.
This is not only a German problem. The arrival of large numbers of refugees has nurtured a European right that is aggressively using the topic. The populist narrative must not dictate a race to the bottom through deportations and restricting asylum seeker’s access to the EU. Political divisions in Europe remain deep and the European Union has yet to find a compromise on a fair system of how to distribute asylum seekers across EU member states. Recently Portugal set a rare positive example when it granted temporary residence rights to migrants and asylum seekers during the covid-19 crisis. These days, the EU talks a lot about solidarity. The bloc can do a lot more in order to support those looking for protection and try to seek justice.