Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August, debates in Germany have flared up whether the country should grant access to more Afghan refugees. In the run-up to the general election in September, German politicians faced a dilemma. How should they address this contentious issue among an electorate that, according to recent polls, overwhelmingly opposes the admission of refugees?
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Most opted for the convenient and electable option of telling voters what they wanted to hear. In doing so, many made use of a new in-vogue and almost bipartisan mantra that Germany must not see a repeat of what happened in 2015, invoking fear of uncontrolled immigration and a split society that supposedly followed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to grant entry to nearly 900,000 refugees six years ago.
But this framing oversimplifies, decontextualizes and exaggerates the events of that year. Most of all, it denies a shared responsibility for Afghanistan’s current predicament and the human stories behind the German-Afghan migration history that spans four decades.
A History of Afghan Migration
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 147,994 Afghan refugees lived in Germany in 2020, trailing only Pakistan and Iran as the largest receiving countries. At the same time, 1,592 live in the US and 9,351 in the UK. Afghan migration to Germany dates back to the first half of the 20th century, yet until the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, only 2,000 Afghans lived in Germany.
Historically, immigration to Germany varied vastly relative to the conflict phases in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, approximately 3,000 Afghans arrived in Germany each year from 1980 to 1982. The second phase of immigration followed from 1985 onward, when predominantly Afghan communists sought refuge in Germany.
The largest movement of Afghan refugees began with the end of Soviet occupation in 1989 and the start of the Afghan Civil War in 1992. Restrictions and expulsions imposed by the riparian states of Iran and Pakistan forced many Afghans to choose Germany as an alternative migration destination.
With the mujahedeen victory and the rise of the Taliban, migration to Germany increased drastically until the mid-1990s before numbers declined steadily. Since 2010, with the resurgence of the Taliban, the number of Afghan refugees heading toward Germany has rebounded continuously. While 9,115 Afghans initially applied for asylum in 2014, this figure almost quadrupled to 127,012 in 2016.
Since then, the number of Afghan refugees dropped significantly, from 16,423 in 2017 to 9,901 in 2020. The causes for this decrease can be found both on the European and national level, in policies enacted in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. In March 2016, as part of the EU-Turkey Declaration, European Union member states provided financial support for Turkey to take back irregular migrants, mostly from Greece. In the same year, the EU concluded the Joint Way Forward agreement with Afghanistan to ease “the return and readmission of irregular Afghan migrants from the EU to Afghanistan.”
On a national level, German information campaigns attempted to dissipate alleged rumors about lavish living conditions in Germany. Other measures, such as restrictions to family reunifications, might have also had an impact.
A New Phase of Immigration
After the fall of the government of Ashraf Ghani, a new phase of Afghan immigration is likely. Its extent will be subject to political will. Initially, Germany responded quickly to the Taliban takeover by adapting its asylum policies by halting deportations to Afghanistan. That represented a significant shift. Before, in a controversial attempt to appease the German population after support had waned for Merkel’s refugee policy, more Afghans were forced back to their home country as some areas were declared safe.
But Germany has been timid in its response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. As of now, fewer than 3,000 Afghans have been evacuated to Germany. It seems that six years later, Merkel’s so-called “open door” approach still casts an overwhelming shadow over German politics and is a strong impetus for the tentative approach toward aiding Afghan refugees today.
The issue of migration has become a hot potato that German politicians were keen to avoid during the election campaign. If addressed, candidates were likely to try to outdo each other in using restrictive immigration rhetoric in an attempt not to alienate voters.
During the election campaign, the chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and candidate for the chancellorship, Armin Laschet, tried to capitalize on an immigration-weary German society by reiterating that 2015 “must not be repeated.” While this phrase failed to inspire a successful campaign, as the election results show, it aptly reflects the public mood: According to a poll published in June, 60% of Germans reject accepting more refugees.
This collective backtracking by Germany’s political class casts an unwarranted bad light on the decisions made in 2015. Essentially, it capitulates to the far right — particularly the Alternative for Germany — in its interpretation of that period. According to journalist Anna Thewalt writing in Der Tagesspiegel, “with a truncated reference to the year, the events of that time are decontextualized and exposed to myth-making.”
Margarete Stokowski, a correspondent for Der Spiegel, calls out the cynicism and the lack of empathy in the shifting political climate against refugees: “2015 was the year in which civil society accomplished much of what politics could not or did not want to. … What must not be repeated is politicians treating fleeing people like nuclear waste they don’t know what to do with.”
To the relief of many German and European politicians, a scenario similar to 2015 is unlikely to materialize. Many Afghans already face barriers and restrictions in Pakistan and Iran, stymieing a journey to Europe. According to Professor Vassilis Tsianos, a sociologist at Kiel University of Applied Sciences, 2015 “will not be repeated in Europe. Afghan refugees simply don’t make it to Europe because the borders are sealed. The border regime that was established during the so-called refugee crisis is working. Afghan refugees are a minority on all main routes to Europe.”
Migration as Misfortune
In light of the human tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, the rhetoric in German politics that dismisses migration as misfortune is not only lacking empathy, but avoids the responsibility for the country’s 21-year military involvement in a failed Afghanistan mission. German armed forces were part of the 2001 multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandate and initially helped to secure Kabul after the defeat of the Taliban.
From 2003 onward, German soldiers were largely deployed to the northern region of Kunduz to establish a secure environment and improve infrastructure. This mission came under severe criticism due to a military exercise on September 4, 2009, when a German commander ordered the bombing of two tankers, feared to be stolen by Taliban fighters, resulting in 142 casualties, most of them civilians.
Despite increasing public scrutiny and doubts about the purpose of Germany’s involvement, its armed forces remained in Afghanistan until 2021, participating in Operation Resolute Support to advise and train local armed forces after the ISAF mandate ended in 2014.
Not only does the anti-immigration rhetoric shut its eyes to the military involvement with loss of civilian life, but it also ignores the history of Afghan migration and the human stories behind it. The negative connotation of 2015 demonizes refugees “who came to Germany … started a new life here under difficult circumstances and are now part of society. What are they supposed to think now when they hear this?” asks Anna Thewalt.
Particularly Afghan women, for whom fleeing to Germany was the path to freedom and self-determination, are struggling to reenact the rising anti-migration sentiment. One of them is Adela Yamini, who had fled from Kabul to Germany in 1994 to escape the mujahedeen. She now lives in the state of Hesse, in the Rhine-Main region near Frankfurt, home to a large proportion of Afghans. During her 27 years in Germany, she has thrived and excelled as a teacher in a vocational school and a local party chairwoman for the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The recent developments in her homeland filled her with great concern and horror, as escape routes that were open to her many years ago are now closed to Afghan women. “I am overjoyed that as a woman I could flee Afghanistan and study and work in Germany. … It is terrible just to think that as a woman you have no way out and are locked up forever and ever. … When I see the pictures and hear from my relatives what they are going through, I am at a loss for words and I can’t find the language to comfort them, to reassure them,” she wrote in an email.
Yamini believes that the German government needs to face up to responsibility in light of its military involvement by supporting Afghan people “who are currently in acute danger to leave the country.” For that, “bureaucratic hurdles must be overcome and people without passports or visas should be taken out of the country.”
As of now, she sees the current German government as avoiding its duty to those who supported its mission in Afghanistan. According to Yamini, by trying not to “scare off voters,” this responsibility is foisted off to a “future government” due to the events of 2015 which were “not discussed appropriately.”
Since 2001, Germany has taken in more refugees from Afghanistan than many other countries that were capable or had a moral obligation to do so. Instead of building on that legacy, Germany is caving into false doom-and-gloom narratives around the events of 2015 that do not correspond with the realities on the ground today. According to Sabrina Zajak, of the German Institute for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), “Germany would be much better prepared today to receive refugees — both at the level of civil society and in terms of improved accommodation capacities as well as integration measures.”
One pretext against further immigration is that Afghans find integration particularly hard. This is not reflected in reality as high employment rates of Afghan refugees in Germany exemplify. That is even more remarkable in light of government measures that had an inhibiting effect on the integration of Afghan refugees. According to Ramona Rischke, also of DeZIM, “German integration policy … has disadvantaged Afghan refugees for years in their access to integration-promoting measures because as a group they have not had so-called ‘good prospects of staying’ in recent years.”
As soon as the obstacles are lifted, Afghans prove their willingness to integrate into German society. When refugees were allowed to complete shortened apprenticeships in understaffed professions in 2020, it was mostly Afghans who seized the opportunity. Already in 2016, statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees showed that Afghans in particular, who are often young and low-skilled, are seeking to complete school education and vocational training.
New Government, Same Inhibition
Following the results of the recent election, the end of the Merkel era is imminent. That era will not only be associated with the courageous decisions of 2015 but also the hasty, scowling renunciation of those policies. There won’t be another policy shift in the foreseeable future, even with the upcoming change of government.
That was indicated by Olaf Scholz, of the SPD, who is likely to take over the chancellorship by forming a coalition with the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats. During an election campaign appearance, he pledged support for Afghan refugees — as long as this takes place as far away from Germany’s front door as possible: “This time we will have to make sure that those who are also seeking protection in neighboring countries are not left alone, as was often the case in the past. Instead, we have to do everything in our power to ensure that there are prospects for integration, that they can stay there, that they can have a secure future there.”
With this statement, Scholz conceded that an affirmative discourse on migration to Germany is a hornet’s nest. For the time being, Germany is preoccupied with its own problems. By describing the events of 2015 as catastrophic for the country, portraying migration as bad fortune and disparaging successful integration, Germany’s political class has succumbed to the narratives of the far right. As a result, this retoric has fed and reinforced the public’s negative attitudes toward migration. Meanwhile, the suffering in Afghanistan, particularly among its women, slips from public view.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.