Germany changes tune on serious crimes committed by refugees

By ending a ban on deporting refugees that commit the most serious crimes, all residents in Germany are safer

epa08881115 German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference after a video conference with German State Premiers about increased anti-coronavirus measures to be implemented on upcoming 16 December, in Berlin, Germany, 13 December 2020.  EPA/RAINER KEUENHOF / POOL
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Last Friday, Germany announced it would allow the expiration of a ban on the deportation of Syrian refugees and migrants who commit serious crimes. The ban was previously in place to ensure that no Syrian migrant or refugee, no matter their record, would be returned to the war zone.

It is a noble intention – one that fit into the wider and remarkable generosity of Germany's government and citizenry, who between 2015 to 2016 welcomed around 1.2 million asylum seekers. But Berlin is right now to take a more robust stance.

The shift in policy is subtle, but it will attract attention from Europe’s left and right alike. The former have criticised the ban's expiry, claiming it infringes on the human rights of migrants. The most extreme wings of the right, some of whom want the expulsion of all Syrian refugees and migrants, will brand it as too lenient, given the fact that deportations, even of convicted criminals, will largely remain impossible due to EU human rights legislation.

Despite these protestations, allowing the ban to expire is the right step. The capacity to deport those who commit the most serious crimes, including terrorists, will put the same onus of civic responsibility on immigrants as all citizens. Moreover, it will help to protect the refugee community, whose members are often the victims of the crimes in question. They also bear the brunt, unfairly, of prejudice stoked by the far right in the aftermath of any crimes committed by a non-citizen.

People walk past damaged buildings at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Syria December 2, 2020. Picture taken taken December 2, 2020. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Conflicts across the Middle East, particularly in Syria, have forced many to make expensive and often dangerous trips to seek refuge in Europe. Reuters
Refugees should still be allowed to make mistakes, but with crimes as serious as terrorism, deportation is entirely justified

An example of this came when a spate of sexual crimes in Germany was attributed to new migrants. The number of assaults was exaggerated, but those that did take place were abhorrent. The outrage was seized upon by far right activists, who tried to turn anger into a wider tirade on the "incompatibility of Islam" in European life. They tried to turn public empathy with Syrians into fear.

On the far left, labelling as racist any discussion on the specifics of such crimes can scare policymakers and community leaders away from tackling important social issues within newly arrived communities. New arrivals who choose to integrate into their adopted home deserve to see the exclusion of those who intend to threaten it. Refugees will, of course, make mistakes. But terrorism is not a mistake – it is a criminal act and a negation of any claims one has to be seeking asylum in a peaceful land.

Deportation, of course, is a complex issue throughout the West. Debacles have happened when governments have used them as a blunt tool, weakening the very concepts of residency, naturalisation and citizenship. The 2018 Windrush Scandal in the UK saw undocumented British residents and citizens of Caribbean origin, with no history of criminality, deported by mistake in the context of a broader attempt to get tough on immigration. The victims still suffer lasting trauma; many had been living in the UK for the majority of their lives.

The concept of citizenship was tested again in Europe when several countries debated stripping ISIS members of their citizenship if they were born abroad or held another nationality. The UK adopted the policy. Critics rightly claimed that this diminished the value of citizenship by applying different rules to dual citizens and excluding them from the national justice system.

But unlike in the UK, those who receive citizenship in Germany will not be subject to deportation. This strengthens the value of German naturalisation by reinforcing the notion that it is earned through a genuine desire to contribute to society and that, once it is earned, it is inviolable.

When three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach in 2015, Europe received a tragic but important reminder of the terrible risks refugees take to reach safety. Countless other families like Aylan's continue to endanger their lives at sea. By allowing this ban to expire, Germany is recognising that those who seek safety, versus those who intend to commit the most serious crimes, belong in different moral brackets. Recognising this distinction will make all who live in Germany safer, especially vulnerable refugees at risk of prejudiced narratives.