An Introduction to the Commission: “A Bold Vision for a Sustainable Refugee and Immigration Policy”

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has established a commission on refugee and immigration policy to explore challenges in the field of refugee policy and economic immigration over the next year.

1. Current situation: Germany - Europe - Worldwide

More than 60 million people around the globe are currently refugees in search of protection and safety. In 2014, over half a million people sought refuge in the European Union. By 2015, twice that many reached Europe by sea alone. By international comparison, however, these figures are relatively low. Southern countries such as Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey or Jordan continue to host the majority of international refugees. According to data provided by the UNHCR, Jordan alone (a nation of 6.5 million inhabitants) has taken in more than 655,000 Syrian refugees. Intensifying armed conflicts in the Middle East, human rights violations, environmental disasters and bleak economic prospects in various regions of Africa and Asia will continue to drive refugee and migration patterns for years to come. Migration patterns within Europe will also remain highly dynamic. Ukraine alone currently has 1.5 million internal refugees.

Given these global developments, the number of refugees in Germany has steadily increased, as well. In 2014, 202,834 people applied for asylum status in Germany (compared to 127,023 in 2013 and only 77,651 in 2012). According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 441,899 new asylum seekers had registered in 2015, bringing the total asylum applications 2015 to about one million.

Not only has the number of refugees increased, but overall immigration to Germany is up, as well. Today, Germany is among the OECD states’ major immigration nations, alongside the USA, Canada, Australia or Great Britain. Net immigration in 2014 was 676,730 (429,000 people immigrated to Germany in 2013, about 400,000 in the preceding year). The vast majority (75 percent) of immigrants are Europeans taking advantage of free movement of persons – most of them are economic migrants who can be considered as permanent immigrants.

Meanwhile, Europe is monitoring its Mediterranean border region with state-of-the-art “smart border” technologies such as drones and satellites, at some points reaching all the way to Northern Africa. This heightened border security, which has been in place for years, has led to increasingly dramatic scenes of people perishing right at the doorstep of Europe, the supposed home of freedom, safety and justice. An estimated 1,600 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean between April 12 and 20 of 2015 alone. Since the 1990s, at least 30,000 lives were lost at the outer borders of Europe. The exact figures are unknown. This trend was alleviated by the effective opening of southeast European borders in the past few months, which is, however, the subject of intense political controversy and unlikely to last.

2. Future prospects and sustainable policies

Since the late summer of 2015, Germany’s policy of welcoming refugees has garnered respect in large parts of the world. This openness marks a turnabout in German refugee policy. Germany is also forging new paths regarding resettlement. Between 2012 and 2014, 300 refugees were accepted in a pilot program each year. From 2015, the program is to be extended to 500 persons annually.

The European Union is struggling to find adequate responses to the mounting migratory pressure. Developments in the past few years have clearly exposed Europe’s lack of response mechanisms to crises and of a sustainable immigration and refugee policy. On the contrary, EU states are drifting apart with regard to the refugee problem. While Germany and Sweden are maximizing their efforts to take in the majority of refugees within the European Union, it is becoming clear that the EU is unable to cope with the current crisis. There is no indication that the burden will be distributed equitably; instead, politicians are building fences and barriers as their ultimate remedy. Although the EU agreed to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy across the 23 member states, only a tiny fraction of these has actually been relocated–and the pressure continues to mount. A fundamental achievement of the EU – its open internal borders – is at acute risk of being lost.

There is no end in sight to the humanitarian catastrophes at the EU’s external borders (both in the east and south of the Mediterranean). Meanwhile, the domestic political climate in Germany as well as in other EU countries is becoming increasingly toxic. Right-wing populist xenophobic movements and parties are gaining traction and entering government. Foreign-policy initiatives (such as the EU-Turkey negotiations or the EU-Africa summit in Malta) that aim to deter refugees or prevent migration will fail if they do not address the root causes of displacement.

Despite the last months’ heated debates, bold visions and concrete concepts for a coherent policy on refugees and migrants are still lacking. Neither national legislation, such as the 1993 “asylum compromise” or the 2005 immigration act, passed by a coalition of Greens and Social Democracts to put Germany on track to becoming a modern immigration nation, nor European agreements such as the Dublin Regulation provide adequate responses for recent developments in displacement and migration. Beyond knee-jerk reactions to the latest developments and muckraking over current refugee and migration policies, the government lacks the strength to credibly communicate issues of migration, refugees and asylum through new ideas and actionable policies.

The Federal Republic of Germany has a legal and moral obligation to provide protection and safety to refugees in a humane and appropriate manner. At the same time, as a global economic power and a nation undergoing profound demographic changes, Germany must develop viable political mechanisms to better manage immigration. There must be a firm, new consensus on a sustainable refugee and immigration policy, with broad social and political backing. Government must provide coherent responses to the profound social, economic and demographic developments that directly affect Germany and Europe.

Demographic change and its impact on the labor market and social security systems are going to be among the driving forces of migration to Germany in the near future. Germany’s current population of 80.8 million will be decreasing significantly, starting as soon as 2023. According to the latest calculations by the Federal Statistical Office (April 2015) Germany’s population will have dropped to 67.7 million (with weak immigration) or 73.1 million (with stronger immigration) by 2060. This trend will have drastic repercussions on retirement benefits and other social security systems (in 2015, there were 34 retirees per 100 active earners; for 2060, the Federal Statistical Office projects 60 retirees per 100 active earners.)

What is needed is a refugee policy grounded in a respect for human rights and the full assumption of responsibility – a policy that provides a clear political foundation for the coexistence of both those in need of protection and the society that receives them. In an age of increasing migration and employment mobility, it is imperative to have an immigration policy that addresses the social, economic and political developments of a demographically changing society. Complex migratory fluxes require a migration policy that goes well beyond static regulatory policy. A modern immigration policy that can keep pace with the dynamics of migration and integration must be transparent, adaptive, and interconnected with other policy areas. Last but not least, a core element of modern immigration policy must also be an integration strategy that promotes personal advancement. Opportunities cannot be segregated by origin and type of immigration (non-EU, refugee, work-related migrant, family reunification etc.). Rather, rights and opportunity for prompt integration and a fast path to citizenship must be opened up to all newcomers. If migrants are not successfully integrated into the educational system and the labor market, if they have no hope of upward mobility, social and political conflicts will intensify in the future.

3. Objective and mission of the commission

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has instituted the Commission, “A Bold Vision for a Sustainable Refugee and Immigration Policy,” (working title) in the project years 2015-2017 in order to generate innovative concepts and concrete approaches to these challenges. One of the chief tasks of the commission will be to compile the various national, European and international regulatory frameworks for refugee and migration policies and to assess the permeability of each system. The themes and policy recommendations of the commission will form the basis for a variety of foundation activities at home, abroad, and with the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s various regional offices.

The primary objective of the commission’s work will be to describe the human rights and political implications of displacement, migration and related political fields (such as demographics, labor market, development policy, national security, etc.). The commission will also formulate political recommendations that outline a humane and sustainable migration policy. This work will require a comprehensive consideration of national, European and international humanitarian obligations as well recommendations for a more far-sighted immigration policy for Germany. One important task will be to clearly define how political, social, economic and other stakeholders can get involved and contribute.

The scope of the commission’s assignment was elaborated and agreed upon with its members at its constitutive meeting on December 11, 2015.

4. Project period

2015 - 2017.

5. Commission Members

  • Luise Amtsberg, Member of the German Parliament

Spokeswoman for refugee policy, Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group

  • Dr. Steffen Angenendt     

Senior Fellow, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP)

  • Hartmut Bäumer    

Former district president and head of the Department for Transportation and Infrastructure for the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg (retired)

  • Volker Beck, Member of the German Parliament

Spokesman for domestic policy, Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group

  • Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel    

University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, executive manager of the Central Institute for Regional Studies (Zentralinstitut für Regionenforschung)

  • Dr. Carola Burkert    

Institute for Labor Market and Occupational Research (Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, IAB), working group on Migration and Integration

  • Günter Burkhardt    

Executive director, PRO ASYL

  • Peter Clever    

Member, central management of the Federal Union of German Employers’ Associations (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände)

  • Dagmar Dahmen    

Head, Office for Foreigners of the City of Cologne

  • Dr. Achim Dercks    

Deputy CEO, German Association of Chambers of Industry and Commerce (Deutscher Industrie- und Handelskammertag, DIHK)

  • Monika Düker, Member of the State Parliament

Spokeswoman for refugee policy, Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group in North Rhine-Westphalia

  • Gisela Erler

State Council for civil society and citizen participation at the State Ministry of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg

  • Dr. Petra Follmar-Otto

Department head, Human Rights Policy Germany/Europe, German Institute for Human Rights (Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte)

  • Margit Gottstein    

State Secretary at the Ministry for Integration, Family, Children, Youth and Women of the federal state of Rhineland-Palatine

  • Norbert Grehl-Schmitt 

Caritas Association for the Diocese of Osnabrück

  • Sybille Haussmann

Head of Office for School, Education and Integration of the county government Düren

  • Prof. Dr. Sabine Hess    

University of Göttingen, Institute for Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology (Institut für Kulturanthropologie/Europäische Ethnologie)

  • Mark Holzberger

Migration and integration policy, Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group

  • Prof. Barbara John    

Member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and CEO, association of social movements “Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband”, Berlin chapter

  • Dr. Oliver Junk    

Mayor of Goslar, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) 

  • Dr. Serhat Karakayali    

Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (Berliner Institut für empirische Integrations- und Migrationsforschung, BIM), department of Fundamentals of Migration Research; former Heinrich Böll Foundation Fellow

  • Miriam Koch    

Ombudswoman for refugees of the city of Düsseldorf

  • Daniel Lede Abal, Member of the State Parliament

Speaker for migration und integration policy, Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group in Baden-Württemberg

  • Antje Möller, Member of the State Parliament

Spokeswoman for the labor market, internal and refugee policy, Green parliamentary group in Hamburg

  • Simone Peter    

Federal Chairwoman, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Green party)

  • Filiz Polat, Member of the State Parliament

Vice head, green party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) parliamentary group in Lower Saxony, Spokeswoman for Migration and Refugees

  • Prof. Dr. Hannes Schammann    

University of Hildesheim, professor for Migration Policy

  • Dr. Jan Schneider    

Head of research area, expert committee of German Foundations for Integration and Migration (SVR)

  • Hans ten Feld

​               former UNHCR representative in Germany

  • Prof. em. Dr. Dietrich Thränhardt    

University of Münster, professor for Comparative Politics and Migration Research

  • Dr. Vassilis S. Tsianos    

University of Hamburg, department of Economics and Social Studies

  • Claudia Vollmer

Municipal director, city of Munich, head of the Department of Residents’ Affairs


  • Coordinated by: Mekonnen Mesghena Heinrich Böll Foundation