by Kelly M. Miller
Out of the 28 member states of the European Union, Germany currently accepts the greatest number of applicants for asylum. Relative to its population – the greatest in the EU – and robust economy, Germany’s contribution to the EU’s more recent attempts to better share the financial burden of refugees equally across member-states is no more significant than many of its neighbors. But regardless of whether or not Germany’s efforts are most worthy of praise, the country’s processing of the nearly 200,000 asylum claims it receives every year are watched closely. Changes to these policies are significant and worthy of our attention, such as this year’s end to the oft-criticized system of Residenzpflicht or Germany’s residency mandate for asylum applicants and status refugees.*
Prior to the fall of 2014, Residenzpflicht had been a fixture of Germany’s approach to the processing and management of migrants seeking refugee status. Recent reforms to this policy, resulting in its near abolition, are significant for the signal they send to other EU countries: demonstrating a humanitarian shift away from what is, in principle, restrictive migration and asylum policy.
Up until this year, asylum applicants were required to remain in an assigned district, a Landkreis, according to the current distribution of asylum applicants across Germany’s 16 federal states. Even those to have received refugee status, which can often be temporary and contigent on improvements in the refugee’s home country, were also required to remain in a designated Landkreis. Due to prohibited access to the local job-market (in most cases for a period of one year after entering the system) and due to the often remote nature of the designated Landkreis, asylum applicants were housed in group facilities for months on end. Residents of these facilities were not all too infrequently re-distributed, moved away from friends and familiar staff, in order to prevent over-crowding or, in some cases, an over-concentration of one particular nationality or age group.
Now, following a three-month period in which the traditional Residenzpflicht or duty to remain in a specific district or facility applies, asylum applicants are free to move about the country.
The abolition of Residenzpflicht is more than just an end to controlled residency: Asylum applicants are now also free to seek employment, following the required three-month period. The job-market remains only partially accessible, however; the same restrictions governing the employment of third-country nationals in Germany apply. For many, the pure and simple opportunity to engage in a meaningful activity that is external to the limbo of waiting for an asylum decision to be issued – a process that can take years – is cause for celebration.
The “freedom of movement” to result from the near dissolution of Residenzpflicht is also granted to those who have received what is called a Duldung or a “stay of deportation” – for reasons that make immediate deportation unadvisable, e.g. temporary political instability in the home country, personal illness and psychological difficulties, on-going job training program, to name only a few. Geduldete or those in possession of this “stay of deportation” are, like asylum applicants, free to seek employment and choose where they will live in Germany, while maintaining access to certain state provisions for their welfare.
For both those awaiting a decision on their asylum application and those with a Duldung, it is difficult to say whether or not many will seize the chance to integrate into the job-market, let alone society at large, at least on a scale policy-makers might expect. As the asylum-application process breeds uncertainty and everyday precarity – never knowing how long one will be allowed to stay, when papers will come, if they will come – the type of self-confidence and assurance required by a competitive, capitalistic job-market in an economy such as Germany’s is not easily maintained or even established.
With the end of Residenzpflicht comes a need for increased social and psychological support, including concerted efforts to cultivate not only potential job skills and language competencies but an assertion of self-worth, as well. The federal agency for migration and refugees has recently made its national integration course program available to asylum applicants and Geduldete – a curious but somewhat helpful program to streamline an otherwise diffuse process of the social and economic inclusion of immigrants. Yet local and on-site interventions in the group housing facilities, where many asylum applicants will continue to live, are now more important than ever. Ideally, both federal and state governments will support and even accelerate the development of such programs with generous funding opportunities.
Danke schön, Berlin
By all accounts, German Parliament’s decision to put an end to the well-established policy of Residenzpflicht was more a humanitarian move than an economic or political calculation. This was not without precedent. In 2010, the city-state of Berlin and the state of Brandenburg that surrounds it were the first to make significant reforms to the policy of Residenzpflicht, agreeing to allow asylum applicants freedom of movement and employment between and across their borders. The isolation of the housing facilities in Brandenburg was broken with this new-found mobility, and lines of access were drawn between the many services and opportunities of Berlin and the residents of its rural neighbor.
What happens in Berlin, Germany’s capital, may be said to influence what happens in the rest of Germany, providing a laboratory of sorts for social policy. Offering a certain freedom of experimentation for piece-meal reforms and structural adjustments, other large municipalities can and have been known to spur national change. The end of Residenzpflicht is a prime example of state and municipal policy providing a model for an alternative way of doing things, for treating people – migrants, asylum applicants, and status-refugees – a little better.
The statement by Germany’s federal commissioner for migration and refugees signals agreement with this assessment: “After all the terrible things [refugees] have experienced, we are providing them an opportunity to enjoy a little piece of normalcy – normal, everyday life. With the reforms passed in Parliament today, we are significantly improving the lives of refugees and Geduldete in Germany”.
It is possible that Berlin’s example, spurring national policy change, may lead to shifts in the approaches of other EU member states to asylum applicants, status-refugees, and migrants, in general. With many potentially innovative municipalities, such as Amsterdam, Stockholm, or Madrid, there is certainly reason to hope.
*For more information on the particular choice of language used in this article, i.e. the distinction between “asylum applicants ”, “status-/refugees”, and “migrants”, see my recent article for Collidoscope Berlin.
 Translated from the original German: “Nach all dem, was sie zum Teil Schlimmes erlebt haben, ermöglichen wir ihnen damit ein Stück normalen Alltag. Mit den heute im Bundestag beschlossenen Gesetzesänderungen verbessern wir das Leben von vielen Flüchtlingen und Geduldeten in Deutschland ganz erheblich”
Kelly M. Miller has an M.A. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the Free University Berlin and a B.A. in International Studies, European Studies, and Germanics from the University of Washington, Seattle. She has worked with the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Seattle Refugee Youth Project, the International Rescue Committee, and Caritas Migration Services. She has conducted participatory action research on German immigrant integration policy and co-founded a media project on migration, diversity, and “the inclusive city” called Collidoscope Berlin. Her current projects involve outfitting a Berlin refugee housing facility with an “intercultural garden” and making Berlin’s immigration history accessible to a broader public.
You can follow her on twitter at @kelmarie_miller and @collideberlin.