What is Residenzpflicht?

by Anke Schwarzer

Shopping at the nearest supermarket, visiting relatives, taking a short trip with the German railway’s reduced week-end ticket or playing football on the field across the street – everyday activities like these can prove the undoing of refugees in Germany. Since 1982 asylum seekers whose applications are still being processed have been subject to residency restrictions in accordance with the Asylverfahrensgesetz (German law governing asylum application procedure) §56 – the so-called Residenzpflicht. They may not leave the district in which the Ausländerbehörde (immigration authorities office) at which they are registered, is located. As the legal proceedings determining asylum cases can take a very long time, the regulation can lead in extreme cases to a refugee being subject to this law for up to ten years. Getting a permit for a small trip is extremely difficult. Sometimes asylum seekers even have to pay for their walk in the park or visit to the doctor; a permit can cost between 15 and 20 marks.

It gets even more expensive if they are found by the police outside of the county in which they are registered. And that can happen quite easily, as the »Sondergesetze für Flüchtlinge« (special laws regarding refugees) give the police sufficient grounds for picking out foreign-looking people in train stations or highway rest areas and demanding their ID. Police raids in housing for asylum seekers are also a matter of routine.

Aside from the police, bureaucrats in the government offices responsible for refugees also make life difficult. They have the power to determine where a refugee can live, and where not. They decide – this varies from district to district – where asylum seekers may travel, how often they can visit a friend, when they can see their relatives, and if they can go to political meetings.

The following points are made in the official justification of Residenzpflicht: maintaining public order and security, better distribution of public costs, and the ability to reach asylum seekers more quickly during asylum proceedings.

What are the consequences of residency restrictions, or the so-called

Restriction of asylum seekers’ freedom to travel has created invisible new borders in Germany. Politically drawn »intra-German borders« essentially limit the free development of the asylum seeker as a person. Residenzpflicht restricts the asylum seekers’ freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It makes it difficult to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. Refugee children cannot meet other children in a nearby city. Freedom of religion is also restricted when asylum seekers are barred from going to the mosque or to congregation meetings. For many asylum seekers, the right to information can only be observed in distant cities because the area in which they are forced to reside is often a political and cultural void.

Residenzpflicht not only restricts refugees’ freedom of movement and humiliates them when they have to beg bureaucrats for permits or when they are controlled by the police. Residenzpflicht can also be life-threatening. The consequences of residency restrictions are often desperate escape attempts that can result in injury or death. On the evening of October 7, 2000, 2 chairwomen of the African Refugees Association, afraid of being convicted of violating Residenzpflicht, jumped out of a 4th story window in a private house in Hamburg. The two women were alone in the apartment when the police rang the bell. As asylum seekers from Togo, they possessed valid residency papers for the Federal Republic of Germany but were registered as refugees in a different state. In jumping out of the window, one woman broke several vertebra. The second woman ended up with a fractured spine and must now face the prospect of life in a wheelchair.

Repeated violations of the Residenzpflicht can result in a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 5,000 German marks or deportation. According to the Landratsamt (county government) of Wartburg, traveling without a permit constitutes a considerable threat to public order and security and is in significant conflict with the interests of the Federal Republic. Repeated violations of the Residenzpflicht should therefore lead to the asylum seeker’s deportation. No explanation is offered as to exactly which body of law is supposedly endangered by traveling without a permit. The bureaucrats argue along more general lines, claiming the need for deterrent measures. Other foreigners should be shown their place and »made to behave in accordance with the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany.« Especially in combination with forced residency in so-called »Sammelunterkünften« (group housing), often located in remote areas, Residenzpflicht functions as a legislative tool of German deterrence policy.

The Komitee für Grundrechte und Demokratie e.V. (Committee for Basic Rights and Democracy) condemns the legal sanctioning of refugees simply because they’ve crossed county borders. The committee declared in October 2000, that »the Sondergesetze (special laws) against refugees are discriminatory and infringe on basic rights« and that »abolishing them is the only appropriate action that the political class can take in the much touted campaign against right-wing extremism, ’Ruck gegen Rechts’.«

A map that tried to show refugees’ freedom of movement would look like a map of the small German states of the 18th century, said Bernd Mesovic of Pro Asyl in April, 2001. He continued, »that – the 18th century, that is – is where the word, ’residenz’ (residency), belongs. Refugees, though, don’t reside; they live in temporary living conditions, as dictated by the law regarding minimum standards for communal housing. This is intended to show them and others that their stay is only temporary (even if it lasts years).« Since the 1980s, the UNHCR, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has also been critical of the »unique deterrence measures used against asylum seekers«.

The refugee organisations, The Voice and the Brandenburger Flüchtlingsinitiative, compare Residenzpflicht with the pass laws of the South African apartheid system. »Refugees in Germany are victims of the Residenzpflicht, a system of residency assignments and restrictions, comparable to the era of racist apartheid in South Africa. Germany, too, has its ’pass laws’. Refugees are forbidden to move freely in Germany. They may not leave the county to which they have been assigned and are obligated to live in the refugee housing that has been assigned to them (often located in remote areas or in the middle of woods).«

Many refugees point out that Residenzpflicht (in addition to many other laws such as the so-called »Asylbeweberleistungsgesetz«) not only restricts their rights but also marks them as »not equal« or »different«, »less important« and »weak« in comparison to Germans. Cornelius Yufanyi of The Voice says, »the laws make us – the refugees – weak and that is also how the Germans see us. These laws fuel the violence of the far-right.« And Christopher Nsoh of the Brandenburger Flüchtlingsinitiative comments, »German laws have generated [a class of] ’inferior’ people.«

Next article: Resistance against Residenzpflicht

Dossier #1: Debates, events and projects that deal with the so-called "Residenzpflicht", while exploring methods of media communication and networking.

  1. Freedom of Movement
  2. What is Residenzpflicht?
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  3. Resistance against Residenzpflicht
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  4. Residenzpflicht – no change in sight
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  5. Freedom of movement – an essential human right
  6. <type=radio~border=0>
  7. The Flüchtlings-Voice
  8. »We need to become more active …« (Indymedia-Interview)
  9. Relevant links
  10. Dates