Blog post written by Natalie Welfens, a doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD project analyzes European resettlement and humanitarian admission programs with a focus on the German context and was awarded a Young Talent research grant by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Her research focusses on questions of inequalities in refugee protection and categorization practices in transnational policy processes. 


Looking at the ongoing political and societal debates on refugee and asylum policies in Germany it seems that the days of ‚Willkommenskultur‘ and the country’s willingness to accept refugees are over. Notwithstanding this, Germany’s efforts in the field of refugee resettlement, offering safe and legal access to protection, continue. At the yearly resettlement expert forum, hosted by UNHCR and the NGO Diakonie, German state and EU representatives, UNHCR and civil society discussed in a collaborative spirit current challenges and new avenues for resettlement to Germany. They may well give direction to the broader developments of this policy field in Europe.


Germany as the new role model for resettlement to Europe?


In light of 68.5 million refugees worldwide the ongoing need for international solutions and mechanisms of responsibility sharing seems evident. The development of the global compact on refugees and the global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration underscore these efforts. One key pillar of international solidarity is refugee resettlement, the ‘transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement’. The UNHCR estimates that currently 1.2 Million refugees are in need of resettlement, but available spots are scarce. With the US resettlement quota being cut by more than half, resettlement by Europe becomes increasingly important. Since the beginning of the war in Syria European countries have stepped up their resettlement efforts, and the common EU resettlement framework, currently still under negotiation, testifies to the willingness to institutionalize these efforts.


From the early days of Europe’s renewed involvement in this policy field, Germany played a key role. After first experiences with a resettlement pilot program, its federal humanitarian admission program for 20,000 Syrian refugees from 2013 onwards was the first European program in reaction to the Syrian crisis. The explicit aim was to admit Syrian refugees from Lebanon in anticipation of a coordinated European response. And indeed, many European states expanded existing or initiated new resettlement and humanitarian admission programs. In 2015 the first coordinated EU conclusion for resettlement was reached, followed by the 2016 EU Commission proposal for the establishment for a European Union Resettlement Framework. Both on the EU as well as on the national level Germany’s voice and action have a strong signal effect for other European countries. This year, Germany announced a resettlement quota of 10.200 refugees until 2019, including 300 spots for refugees evacuated from Libya to Niger. The ongoing humanitarian admission from Turkey, resulting from the EU-Turkey agreement of May 2016, however, also falls within this quota, despite the fact that refugees only get temporary protection.



New avenues for resettlement to Germany


Already Germany’s presidency of the Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement (ATCR) underscored the country’s continuous interest in this field. At the ATCR Working Group meeting in February Germany’s then state-secretary Dr. Emily Haber announced a pilot private sponsorship programme for 500 refugees. Following the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, the German Ministry of the Interior is currently defining the key cornerstones of this new form of refugee admission. These plans coincided with the initiative of the German protestant church in Westphalia, who – inspired by the humanitarian corridors of Sant’Egidio in Italy –  started to examine possibilities for a similar model of access to Germany. The upcoming private or community sponsorship programme would give them the opportunity to realize these plans and to make an example for civil society’s continuing willingness to welcome and assist newcomers.


In the same vein, Schleswig-Holstein, a province in the North of Germany, announced an additional humanitarian program for 500 vulnerable refugees. The example shows that efforts for resettlement and humanitarian admission programs do not necessarily have to come from the federal level only. Looking at the regional level, the current EU negotiations on the Resettlement Framework also promise to lead resettlement into new directions. While nothing is decided yet, previous propositions caused intense discussions of the so-called ‘strategic use’ of resettlement and the selection of refugees based on their ‘integration potential’. Strategic use in the context of the framework refers to the EU’s proposal to take ‘a third country’s effective cooperation with the Union in the area of migration and asylum’ including reducing irregular entries to EU territory as a criterion to resettle from this region. These, as well as the highly contested proposal to consider ‘integration potential’ for selection, have led some observers suggest that the framework may transform resettlement from a humanitarian pathway into a tool for migration management. With the EU elections coming up it remains to be seen what the final version of the EU Framework will bring.


Another burning question for the future of resettlement is how to respond to emergency situations such as the current situation in Libya. Germany’s current resettlement of up to 300 refugees from Niger, who were previously evacuated from Libya, illustrates the multiple challenges such programs pose. From the difficult selection process in Libya, the lack of ID documents of most refugees, transfers of blood samples to Kenyan laboratories, issuance of travel documents in Burkina Faso – the admission from Niger shows that resettlement is not only a question of a state’s general willingness but also of meticulous coordination and available infrastructures on the ground.


Where does it lead us?


Resettlement is currently striking new paths and exploring new directions with new actors involved. This makes resettlement a moving target, an umbrella term for a whole bundle of protection tools. On the one hand, this makes a previously rather cumbersome and lengthy instrument more flexible. On the other hand, this process of redefining resettlement also bears a certain risk to transform the very nature of resettlement: its humanitarian grounds and objective to be an additional and complementary form of protection for the most vulnerable.


Contestations centre around the choice of regions and resettlement’s ‘strategic use’; selection criteria, especially ‘integration potential’; the connection of refugee admission with third country’s cooperation on border control; and observable tendencies to replace the individual right to asylum with resettlement. The EU-Turkey agreement already introduced the linkage of refugee admission with cooperation on border control. However current negotiations around the EU Resettlement Framework also prove NGO’s advocacy work against restrictive admission criteria to be successful. Many of these tension lines are not new and will continue to shape discussions and policies. The increasing importance and weight that resettlement gained over the last year in Europe and its entanglement with broader asylum and refugee policies makes a constructive exchange about which directions resettlement could and should take all the more important.


Broadening the definition of ‘resettlement’ as well as the number of actors involved brings new ideas and voices into play. How exactly this will shape the future of resettlement remains to be seen. As Karoline Popp puts it with regard to private sponsorship programs in a recent report for The Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration: “What is important is achieving a balance between flexibility and protection and tailoring the various procedures available to the particular circumstances”. While Germany is only one of multiple examples in Europe’s resettlement landscape the new avenues it explores and surrounding debates have already proven to be exemplary and guiding for the broader European context.




Photograph: ©Wikimedia

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