The Federal Government is glossing over the deterrence and deportations with weasel words about humanity. What is needed instead is a sustainable refugee policy in the interests of human rights – and in our own.

On 25 September 2015, the United Nations adopted the 17 sustainability targets on which future policy is to be based across the world. The Federal Government has expressly signed up to them. But both its refugee policies and those of the European Union, both of which are decisively influenced by Angela Merkel, are at odds with them.

This refugee policy pursues, in diametrical contrast to the “welcome culture” of 2015, the sole aim of sealing Germany and the EU off as hermetically as possible from refugees and, of those who are here, to deport as many as possible. Again and again, Minister of the Interior de Maiziere has publicly confirmed the success of the government exclusively on the reduction of the refugees who are still allowed to come to Germany or stay here.

This means that people are being thrown back into oppression, hunger, poverty and the threat of death. This is not only costing Europe and Germany their democratic credibility and respect around the world. Exclusivity and deterrence are also undermining our own security in the long term and we are wasting the rich opportunities for sustainable development in Europe and its fruitful cooperation with the global South which would result from a human rights-oriented refugee policy.

In the FAS of 6 February 2017 Thomas Oppermann made his own proposal for a refugee policy which seeks to establish a coherent strategy. Unfortunately, he lost the attention of his audience for his constructive proposals with the unacceptable idea of sending refugees rescued in the Mediterranean back to North Africa. This contradicts his proclaimed humanitarian goals, and he has indeed withdrawn this suggestion. Despite that, his proposals can be further developed into a coherent human rights-oriented strategy. This will be done in what follows.

The current refugee policy of the Federal Government

The resolution of the reasons for seeking refugee rightly announced as the first element of refugee policy is sound, but it takes time. However, due to the current cooperation with dictators who despise humanity, it is being undermined. The number of refugees from Turkey is rising, as is the number of those from African countries like North Sudan, whose widely condemned dictator al Bashir is driving people to seek asylum, but which the German government wants to reward for keeping refugees at bay.

Even the financial support for camps in the geographical proximity of the causes for seeking refuge, especially in the Middle East (Lebanon, Jordan), as the second element of refugee policy, is reasonable, but should long have been increased, instead of suffering a reduction, as happened two years ago (even by the German AA).

In essence, however, current refugee policy is now concentrated as the third element exclusively on “securing the external borders of the EU” and on the closure of the “Balkan route”. This amounts to a straightforward barricading of Europe which is in no way less extreme than Donald Trump’s Mexican wall. This comparison, however, is disowned by the perpetrators. The politicians are ultimately relying on deterrence: the fear of drowning, thirst, starvation, torture and enslavement on their way to Europe is meant to keep people from fleeing. But they do not call their policy one of deterrence. The discrepancy with the European values endlessly celebrated in public would then be too blatant.

Hypocritical humanitarian formulations

This is why they justify it with humanitarian formulations whose deceptive character is evident to all those not determined to look away. “Taking away the business of the traffickers” is at the top. “Something better than death can be found anywhere”, say the Bremen city musicians. The fairy tale plays on the poverty of the “useless” old servant who, dismissed by his master, revolts in order just to survive.

This also applies to asylum-seekers, war refugees and poverty refugees, who are not looking for commercial luxury, as the now misleading word “economic refugees” suggests, but for survival and material livelihood for themselves and their family. Surely safe survival in freedom is a foundation of sustainability goals. However, the more difficult and dangerous the routes into Europe have become, the more lucrative it becomes for the traffickers, who are then all the more in demand. The German government and the EU, in contrast to their public claims, are shoring up the safeguarding and expansion of their business model.

Anyone in Serbia who can get from the streets of Belgrade to the official camps (with food and a roof over his head) can expect a waiting period of 6 to 8 months just to reach neighbouring Hungary, which lets in a daily maximum of five to ten refugees. No wonder he will be looking for traffickers. Their business is boosted the more impermeable the Balkan route becomes. Even the brutal Lybian traffickers have gained thousands of “customers” under the Turkey Agreement. Anyone using the phrase “taking away business” can, yes, must know that he is lying. This also applies to the follow-on remark that refugees should be saved from drowning. After the deal with Turkey, on the more dangerous route through North Africa, the number of known (!) Mediterranean deaths in the year 2016 has risen massively.

The “control of European external borders”, which is often cited as a justification, is not being achieved with this policy. Such control only works if a clear incentive is created for the refugees to cooperate voluntarily. Then the number of illegals would fall and become manageable as it was a few years ago. Instead, the government, with its exclusion policy, is ensuring lucrative orders for the armaments industry, which is using electronic surveillance to replace the impossible physical wall across the desert far from the coast. This control remains a chimera. It underestimates human inventiveness. And it also involves more and more systematic violations of human rights, by declaring states in North Africa to be safe when they are not or indeed have no monopoly of power at all. This also applies to Afghanistan. Just recently, an Afghan was injured in an assassination attempt and had to be taken to hospital shortly after his deportation to Kabul.

Border controls are only functioning to some extent within Europe, but only with the effect of undoing the Schengen agreement and thus a valuable element of European integration. And this will continue as long as the futile “safeguarding of the EU’s external borders” with the North African countries is pursued. This short-sighted refugee policy, therefore, is extending inner-European border controls again and again, inevitably, to an indefinite period. A step back in terms of integration.

In short: the rolling back of European integration, the violation of European values and human rights (as the UNHCR has repeatedly criticised), misleading promises to Europeans regarding the control of European external borders, hypocritical reasons, many dead and ever more manifest double standards in the, in principle justified, criticism of Donald Trump – that is the record of current German and European refugee policy.

There are alternatives

Is there no alternative to this after all? Would we be “flooded” by refugees without this short-sighted and inhuman policy? Are human rights and sustainability simply an illusory slogan, which we should drop if we want to remain honest? No, there are alternatives!

First of all, in order not to force poverty and economic refugees into the category of asylum seekers, which triggers the well-known allegations of illusions and resentments that are playing into the hands of the Right, we need as a third element, as Thomas Oppermann also emphasised, a German and European Immigration Law. The conservatives have been blocking this for years, although under the leadership of Rita Süssmuth and Hans-Jochen Vogel, a clever, non-partisan draft was developed in 2001 with broad social support. Angela Merkel at the time criticised Rita Süssmuth for damaging her Christian Democratic Party by this far-sighted preparatory work, because Germany was not an immigration country.

Then, if “illegal” immigration is to be addressed, Europe needs as a fourth element specifically alternative legal entitlements, which are genuinely organised by the rule of law, under which asylum seekers, war refugees and immigrants can submit their applications. It is only in this way that trafficking will really be laid to rest, so that the large-scale drownings can be avoided, and only in this way can the European external borders be secured.

Only European embassies (as suggested by Barbara John for a long time) or inner-European contact points are in fact offering this. However, this raises the concern that the drownings in the Mediterranean will never end. Therefore, we should consider whether even outside the EU there are further access options under the authority of the UNHCR or the EU (e.g., existing refugee camps).

This will not be easy to negotiate and finance. But instead of shameful prisons or “concentration camps”, as they have now emerged in dictatorships or decayed states, and which also do not allow control of EU borders, the possibility exists of arriving at a regulated entry regime by refugees being given the prospect of legal and safe access. The core issue is that security on the European external borders cannot be achieved against the will of the refugees, but only if they can voluntarily participate in it.

However, the EU has never yet organised such contact points on its own territory effectively and constitutionally. Greece and Italy, which are currently the most important countries of arrival, are understandably rejecting these institutions because they have known for years that most of the other Europeans – including the German government! – will leave them in the lurch and “sitting” on the refugee numbers. The new demand of Minister of the Interior de Maiziere to move refugees from Germany to Greece (!) and Italy, after the exception for Syrians from 2015, is a step further still. The deportation practice with regard to refugees who have invested a great deal in Germany, who have struggled to come and settle here, is inhumane and economically and politically absurd. It will also not appease the Right.

The Chancellor has currently conceded the acceptance of 500 refugees per month, but is not considering any significant proposals for decentralised acceptance procedures in other European countries. Decentralised accommodation throughout Europe, however, is the necessary and perhaps the most important fifth element of a sustainable refugee policy, to which Thomas Oppermann also draws attention. Without them, the deterrence logic will always prevail, because the fear of “flooding”, “alienation”, and of culture clashes and general chaos then becomes overpowering. Without a smart and effective strategy, a humanitarian refugee policy cannot succeed. In return, this offers opportunities for the EU itself.

European integration as joint development

So far, however, the national governments can imagine a decentralised settlement only authoritatively from above – which obviously will not succeed. So we need to create an incentive system that works bottom-up and is based on the voluntary nature of both the refugees and the hosting institutions or places in Europe. These are the municipalities. The key to a sustainable European refugee policy, which is based on human rights, is therefore to understand and shape the integration of refugees as a joint municipal or regional development, with an incentive system that builds on voluntary activities and on the self-interest of the municipalities. In other words, the municipalities’ decisions must be prepared by the representatives of the three most important stakeholder groups – state policy, enterprises and organised civil society (including unions, churches, NGOs) – and their experience must also be taken into account.

The process for this strategy is simple: if the EU creates a fund, e.g. with the European Investment Bank (EIB), to which municipalities can apply for the financing of the integration and an equal amount for the implementation of their own independent interests, we would find enough willingness to take in refugees. For this there are many in particular demographic reasons, especially in “left behind” areas of Europe. And we have a high investment and workplace requirement, Portugal, for example, actually needs manpower. The so-called refugee crisis would thus be overcome in a win-win situation by a growth program above all directed against unemployment. The fund could be funded by European development bonds, which could be repayable in the long term. In the form of additional revenue from the municipalities as a result of the growth. The EU should give the money not to the armed forces, but to its municipalities.

This would benefit sustainable growth: on the ground, through multi-stakeholder governance based on an accurate knowledge of existing resources (in particular the entrepreneurial, working and training potential), the different interests, the possible conflicts, but also the potential for synergy or regional development projects could be planned and implemented, which will find the support of the entire community (“ownership”!) and thus integrate them further socially.

The question is constantly being raised: what is holding society together? It is not just social services, not even widely proclaimed values, but, above all, common projects, which are supported by many and which are oriented to the public good. Cultural, sporting, (further) education-oriented initiatives would benefit everyone and create jobs rapidly. At the same time, education costs of personnel should finally be recognised as investment costs because they represent investment in the economic, social and cultural future of coming generations and not just in current consumption. As a matter of course, this would at the same time very rapidly stimulate growth. The identification of European citizens with the EU would increase through the municipalities.

There are many individual things to be done on this: the coordination between the interests of the refugees and the communities must be organised. In order for refugees to stay in places that are not their first choice, “retention” incentives must be developed, as with any regional promotion: jobs, housing, offers for property development, infrastructure for families and education, cultural, sports, especially human affiliations and links – all this can help. Also the reception of larger refugee groups, where there are not many at present. Here, anchoring possibilities without discrimination or Ghetto-building must be promoted.

Should we be worrying about “flooding”?

Will we be “flooded” by refugees in Europe with such a refugee policy which lives by human rights? While it is likely that there will continue to be persons who are seeking access illegally because of the fear that they will not fit into a legal category – beyond asylum seekers and war refugees – and despite the immigration law, that problem will be much less serious. They will remain an incentive for us to really keep our promises about the causes of the disease, even if the pressure wears off. At the same time, there would be a human rights-compatible way of denying them access to Europe.

In any case, there will certainly not be any “flooding”, if we continue to commit ourselves consistently and sustainably to combating the causes of flight. These include fair trade which, for example, abandons subsidies of European agricultural products to the detriment of African agriculture and the industrial emptying of the seas off the coast of Africa, as well as the socially responsible exploitation of raw materials, in partnership with good governance and a sustainable climate and resource policy. Certainly not, if we financially ensure that refugees can stay close to their home countries, which experience suggests they prefer. Certainly not, if we offer them a decentralised home in Europe with a population of 500 million, so that they are – as often seen – strengthened and indeed, as good ambassadors for Europe, want to return to their own homeland, which they are financially already supporting on a large scale from Europe.

The benefits of a sustainable refugee policy: human rights are in our interest

What is the advantage of such a holistic concept of refugee policy, composed of five elements, which is essentially based on voluntary cooperation – including of the host society?

The 17 sustainability targets mentioned above are founded on the insight that our planet is limited and that sustainable solutions can only be found through voluntary cooperation because of our interdependence. It is not compulsion but the equal freedom of all citizens that is also the normative core of Western democracy, which we are currently betraying and undermining with our refugee policy. This has already seriously damaged Europe’s credibility and influence in the world. The proposed strategy believes in freedom and renews the identification with our values. This is a better identity policy, a future-oriented one, not a reactionary backwards-looking one!

Western democracy, in which we claim to believe – and a better form of government and life, I do not know – needs a culture of respect, trust, co-operation and empathy, which will not fall from heaven, but which we must care for every day as “social capital”. And this in societies that are becoming increasingly diverse, even without refugees. This brings riches with it, but also conflict, whose productive orientation requires patience and creativity. We also need and can practice it. Aristotle was right when he described practice and habit as the basis of ethical virtues.

But we will not be able to do this if we are frightened. Personal interaction – irrespective of refugees – is the elixir of understanding and offers the opportunity to perceive diversity as wealth and development potential. This cannot be done without effort, just as a new language, a musical instrument or a new sport can be appreciated only after practising it. Social competence, good neighbourliness, curiosity about others and a human-friendly sense of humour are all important preconditions for a free and peaceful life on our planet.

Our security also depends on it. The more persons we exclude from their life opportunities, the more we humiliate and frustrate them, the more envy, resentment and hatred we stir up, the more we prepare the ground for terror. Then no police, no army, no intelligence service will be enough. We will be sending our freedom and security to the grave. They are a right for all to enjoy, not a privilege of the rich.

Conversely, we will be creating cultural and economic wealth for our country and for Europe, when more and more people, for example, master several languages and build up trading relations around the world. There are clear studies on American cities and municipalities that have been planned and sustained in the long term and are now experiencing a boom. The children of the refugees will build world-wide relations.

What drives value creation today? No longer simply land or work. This old question of economic theory needs new answers. Creativity, communication, exchange of knowledge and trust are among the most important building blocks. And many especially young citizens are looking forward to it.

We have the choice: Either we stay walled up anxiously while ruining our future, or we also develop Germany, Europe and the diversity of the refugees in far-sighted, smart and courageous solidarity and in our own enlightened self-interest. This is how we can shape globalisation in our countries and in Africa. The choice should not be a hard one for us.

The English version of this article was proposed by the author based on her contribution in German in Spiegel online