Moving Cities
About the city

Berlin

The city state sues for its right to take in refugees

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Federal states in Germany can make a difference by using their powers to interpret national legislation in favour of refugees.

  • 2

    Berlin has pioneered programmes in housing, healthcare and independent advice that could easily be implemented by more cities and federal states in Germany.

What is unique about the city?

Interpreting federal law in favour of migrant interests: Following the most recent state election in 2016, the city’s Senate commissioned lawyers and representatives from anti-racist civil society groups to determine how the city should implement federal immigration regulations in the interest of migrants. The Senate then instructed city authorities to use whatever discretionary powers allowed by federal law to benefit those most affected. Berlin is also the first state in Germany to take legal action to fight for its right to take in refugees from other federal states.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

Improved access to healthcare, housing, and advice: Following the Berlin Senate’s mandate, the city has increased access to housing for asylum seekers. It has also extended access to healthcare for anyone, regardless of official immigration status. It also offers impartial advice for asylum seekers early on. Particularly vulnerable groups receive special support from a system jointly developed between the Senate and specialised advice centres.

What are the key factors?

A left coalition and strong civil society: Berlin is both Germany’s capital and largest city, with a liberal political culture and strong civil society. Its status as a city-state, governed by a left-leaning coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens (Grüne), and Left (Linke) makes it a place where progressive reception policy approaches can be tested.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Berlin is active both at the national level and in international networks in its endeavour to push legal frameworks in migration policy in a more inclusive direction. At the national level, Berlin has been at the forefront of local resettlement campaigns since the surge of the Seebrücke movement in 2018, and is pushing for more city-based and regional autonomy on questions of migrant intake.

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Political context of Germany

Migration policy in Germany

Responsibility for citizenship, immigration and refugee admissions lies in principle with the federal government. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – overseen by the Federal Ministry of the Interior – is responsible for processing asylum applications. Meanwhile, embassies – under the authority of the Federal Foreign Office – decide on immigration applications for work, family reunification and study. In terms of asylum policy, the federal states must implement federal laws such as the Asylum Seekers' Benefits Act. In doing so, they have some room for manoeuvre, which can lead to refugees being treated very differently across the 16 states. Independently of the federal government, the states can, for example, issue humanitarian residence permits via special commissions that review hardship cases, decide on temporary deferrals of deportation orders, or even arranging prospects of remaining for entire groups of newcomers. As a rule, the federal states delegate decision-making on individual cases to local immigration offices. For their part, these authorities have a great deal of leeway when it comes to assessing so-called obstacles to deportation, issuing or extending residence permits.

Historical background

The idea that Germany is “not a country of immigration” shaped German political discourse for decades after World War II. Over time, this self-image has increasingly collided with reality. As early as the late 1950s, the federal government began bringing in so-called “guest workers” from southern Europe to fill labour shortages in the country’s booming industries. When the “recruitment stop” came into effect in 1973, contrary to political expectations, millions of these workers remained in the country but received practically no help with integration. Today, they continue to shape German society, whilst also suffering from discrimination, for example in voting rights or on the labour market. After the Eastern Bloc’s collapse, the number of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe rose sharply. In 1992, the Bundestag approved far-reaching restrictions on the right to asylum, fuelling in some parts of Germany in the first half of the 1990s a pogrom-like atmosphere.

Key developments of recent years

The 2015 “summer of migration” marked a watershed moment in several respects. Under pressure from the refugee movement, Germany allowed the arrival of approximately one million refugees. There was enormous civil society involvement in the reception process, which became known under the catchphrase “welcome culture” (Willkommenskultur); this helped many newcomers to make social and economic connections more quickly than previous generations. Policymakers established an integration infrastructure with substantial resources to support refugees in their language learning, education as well as on their path onto the labour market. As early as 2016, however, the mood changed and politicians promised to ensure, more than anything, that “2015” would not be repeated, and since then nearly a dozen laws tightening asylum policy have been passed. Among the most controversial political responses was the attempt to set a cap on the number of new refugee admissions per year. Since this would be incompatible with the German constitution’s basic right to asylum, the governing coalition of conservatives and social democrats decided in 2018 to aim for a non-binding “corridor” of 180,000 to 220,000 admissions per year. However, the EU's external borders have since been extensively sealed off, which has led to Germany accepting considerably less than this in recent years. In parallel to these developments, the German economy has been experiencing labour shortages for almost ten years, exacerbated by both a low birth rate and a period of strong economic growth. In 2020, a Skilled Worker Immigration Act came into force, allowing – to a very limited extent – the immigration of workers from outside the EU.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

In 2000, migrant organisations lobbied the red-green federal government to reform the country’s existing citizenship law. Since then, a child born in Germany to foreign parents automatically receives German citizenship under certain conditions, in addition to the citizenship of his or her parents. Around ten years later, refugee organisations won their fight, following years of campaigning, to reform the law on asylum by having certain features of the “Asylum Compromise” either repealed or made more lenient. One of the most draconian and disempowering provisions of the “Asylum Compromise” was the distribution of “benefits in kind” (such as food parcels) instead of cash in asylum shelters, and the ban on working. However, some of these improvements were overturned following the 2016 backlash. A further success by progressive campaigning includes the German government's change of course on the European Dublin regulation. For a long time, it was primarily Germany that insisted on this provision, which placed a heavy burden on external border states. Since 2014, the German government has been in favour of a European distribution key. At a civil society level, a large number of initiatives have emerged – from local reception alliances to large sea rescue NGOs.