No change in sight: plans to extend and not to abolish the law are in the pipeline

by Anke Schwarzer

Refugee resistance against Residenzpflicht leaves politicians cold. During negotiations of EU minimum standards regarding the admission of applicants for political asylum, the German Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, strongly fought for Germany to be allowed to continue its restrictions on freedom of movement.

The plan, however, is not simply to retain Residenzpflicht as it currently stands, but to expand it to other refugee groups. In the spring of 2001, the German states of Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, governed by a coalition of the center Socialist and the Green parties, presented a bill to the Upper House of Parliament. This declared that people who illegally entered the country, but who cannot be deported and are therefore tolerated by the authorities (in German »geduldete AusländerInnen«, hereafter referred to as »tolerated foreigners«), cannot freely chose their place of residence. According to the bill, they should be assigned to states and local districts in accordance with quotas.

A federal distribution arrangement currently exists which apportions the refugees first between the states and afterwards assigns them to county or local districts. This arrangement and associated residency restrictions (»Wohnsitz- und Residenzpflichtauflage«) have, until now, only applied to applicants for political asylum. Tolerated foreigners (illegal immigrants who cannot be deported) are also subject to residency restrictions but these usually apply at the state level and not at the level of counties or smaller districts. Tolerated foreigners, like war refugees from Bosnia or Afghanistan, as opposed to applicants for political asylum, could until now choose the place in which they submit their application for toleration and thereby choose their place of residency within Germany. In practical terms, therefore, their residency restrictions did not effect daily life to the grave extent that the asylum seekers’ restrictions did.

If this bill is made into law, tolerated foreigners’ freedom of movement would be severely restricted. The bill envisages a nationwide distribution of tolerated foreigners in accordance with the ratio that is used for applicants for political asylum. The reason given for this planned regulation is that the financial burden carried by the states is unjust. »The urgent need for action stems from the monies that can be collected nationwide. Not passing distribution regulations may lead to noticeable redistribution of costs between the states.« The following statement was made in the official explanation for the new bill: »Like applicants for political asylum and (civil) war refugees, illegal immigrants do not have a right to live in a particular state or place.«

Georg Classen, of the Refugee Council in Berlin, points out that government offices in the past have tried to redistribute tolerated foreigners by illegally refusing to register them, to give them the official status of tolerated foreigner or to give them welfare benefits. In addition, he says, they were advised to initiate asylum proceedings, which are not allowed by law to war refugees.

The new law is not yet in force. Although the federal government fundamentally supports a »more just distribution of the costs« faced by states, it says that many of the points are not well worked-out and that these must first be clarified. Questions of technical implementation and financing are still open. The procedure for photographing and fingerprinting refugees for police records still has to be worked out, as does the issue of legal council and the handling of exceptional cases.

The political party, Grünen/Bündnis90 (The Green party), have no fundamental problems with the idea of supporting the new bill. According to the paper, »Änderungsbedarf aus grüner Sicht« (»Necessary changes, as seen from the Green perspective«), they would support it once the Minister of the Interior promised to renounce his previously publicly stated reservations about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition, the Greens suggest introducing various points intended the weaken the bill. They argue that »humanitarian hardships« should be considered, that a clearer definition of those affected be created, and that the former East German states should not have to bear additional costs. Rather than Residenzpflicht, they have an arrangement in mind that is comparable to the residential assignment laws that apply to the emigrants of German origin from Eastern European states. The need to get a permit in order to leave the district of the Ausländerbehörde (immigration authorities office) would thus be made superfluous.

The PDS rejects the initiative of Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia. »Instead of moving people around like figures on a chess board, the costs of accommodation and care could be balanced at the federal level,« says Ulla Jelpke, the Speaker for Domestic Affairs of the PDS parliamentary party. The PDS position is that Residenzpflicht should be abolished. In order to accomplish this, they have already introduced a bill that would repeal the measures in the Asylverfahrensgesetz (law regulating asylum procedures) that contain residency restrictions, especially the so-called »Landkreisregelung«, which imposes residency restrictions at the county level. The PDS, however, have never agreed with the principle of allowing refugees to choose their own place of residency. They state that »limitations on the geographical range of residency are not necessary to insure a fair distribution of costs. After they [the limitations] have been done away with, the regulations that determine how asylum seekers are assigned to their place of residency will continue to exist.«

Even if the law has not become an issue of great priority among most politicians, the public is now at least aware that such a discriminatory law exists in Germany. Just a year ago, many politicians did not know that refugees were subject to residency restrictions, or what these restrictions were. It is thanks to the Campaign against Residential Restriction Law, launched by the refugee organization, The Voice, in coordination with The Brandenburger Flüchtlingsinitiative and an association of various other initiatives, that this public awareness has been achieved.

Next article: Freedom of movement -- an essential human right

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