The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred.
Freedom of Expression: While the government generally respected these rights, it imposed limits on groups it deemed extremist. The government arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned a number of individuals for speech that incited racial hatred, endorsed Nazism, or denied the Holocaust (see also section 6, Anti-Semitism).
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with few restrictions. The limitations on press freedom are similar to those on expression.
Authorities banned 72 CDs, five books, and 26 journal articles for right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic, or racist content in 2017.
In January the Bild daily newspaper defied a Frankfurt court order and published an uncensored picture of an alleged looter during the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg. The court had ruled in July 2017 that Bild had either to stop publishing or to censor pictures of the individual Bild photographed stealing items, and the court upheld this ruling in December 2017. Bild argued that the “mission of the press” was to depict crimes committed at major events. In May a Frankfurt court ordered Bild to pay a 50,000 euro ($57,500) fine for defying the court order.
Violence and Harassment: In August representatives of the anti-Islam Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) movement and the AfD party protested Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Dresden (Saxony). During the demonstration a demonstrator (an off-duty police employee) claimed that privacy laws prohibited a camera team covering the demonstration from filming him, and he filed a complaint with police on the spot. Despite an exception to the privacy law allowing for coverage of public demonstrations, police held the journalists for 45 minutes, reportedly to verify their identities. The journalists stated that police hindered their coverage of the event. The complaint remained under investigation at year’s end. While Saxony’s minister-president denied any wrongdoing by police, Chancellor Merkel issued a statement in support of press freedom and noted that demonstrators should expect that they may be filmed.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for the Media: In August the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body introduced new regulations for video games permitting Nazi-related symbols such as swastikas to be displayed if they serve a teaching or artistic purpose, or cover current affairs or history.
On January 1, the repeal of the law protecting heads of state and foreign government institutions from public insults entered into force.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, with one notable exception, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law permits the government to take down websites that belong to banned organizations or include speech that incites racial hatred, endorses Nazism, or denies the Holocaust. Authorities worked directly with internet service providers and online media companies to monitor and remove such content. As of July authorities monitored several hundred websites and social media accounts associated with right-wing extremists.
On January 1, legislation to combat hate speech on social networking sites went into effect. Social media companies are responsible for identifying hate speech and deleting content, and the law imposes short deadlines and financial penalties for noncompliance. Journalists and press organizations, as well as digital policy groups, voiced concerns that social media companies seeking to comply with the law may delete more content than necessary or install filters to block problematic content, and asserted this would result in a broad and chilling effect on freedom of speech. On January 23, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that, to avoid legal entanglement, Twitter suspended the account of the online magazine Titanic when it posted a satirical parody of AfD politician Beatrix von Storch’s anti-Muslim statement. The German Association of Journalists criticized the suspension, stating it was censorship and limited the freedom of the press. In June the Ministry of Justice stated that it had received 400 complaints about hate speech on social media, far below the 25,000 complaints it anticipated receiving after the law went into effect. Critics argued these statistics were evidence that social media companies were aggressively blocking content. In June, two politicians from the FDP complained in Cologne’s administrative court that the law violates their freedom of communication.
In February the higher state court of Baden-Wuerttemberg sentenced a man to two and a half years in prison for operating the neo-Nazi website “Altermedia” under statutes criminalizing hate speech. The website, which the interior ministry removed in 2016, served as a platform for right-wing extremist networks and carried speech promoting Holocaust denial, as well as promoting hatred of foreigners, refugees, and Jews.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, 84 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were some government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events supporting extreme right-wing neo-Nazism.
While the constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, the government restricted these freedoms in some instances.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
While the constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, the government restricted this freedom in some instances. Groups seeking to hold open-air public rallies and marches must obtain permits, and state and local officials may deny permits when public safety concerns arise or when the applicant is from a prohibited organization, mainly right-wing extremist groups. In rare instances during the year, authorities denied such applications to assemble publicly. Authorities allowed several nonprohibited, right-wing extremist, or neo-Nazi groups to hold public rallies or marches when they did so in accordance with the law.
It is illegal to block officially registered demonstrations. Many anti-Nazi activists refused to accept such restrictions and attempted to block neo-Nazi demonstrations or to hold counterdemonstrations, resulting in clashes between police and anti-Nazi demonstrators. In October the immunity of the Green party Bundestag member Canan Bayran was lifted, and the Berlin police opened an investigation to determine whether she had blocked a demonstration. In February she reportedly blocked an antiabortion rally. The investigation continued at year’s end.
Police detained known or suspected activists when they believed such individuals intended to participate in illegal or unauthorized demonstrations. The length of detention varied from state to state.
Foreign politicians may not hold rallies in Germany if they are election candidates in their country within three months of the proposed rally. In the months preceding the Turkish presidential election in June, local authorities canceled a number of rallies that featured Turkish cabinet ministers or politicians.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the constitution provides for the freedom of association, the government restricted this freedom in some instances. The law permits authorities to prohibit organizations whose activities the Constitutional Court or federal or state governments determine to be opposed to the constitutional democratic order or otherwise illegal. While only the Federal Constitutional Court may prohibit political parties on these grounds, both federal and state governments may prohibit or restrict other organizations, including groups that authorities classify as extremist or criminal in nature. Organizations have the right to appeal such prohibitions or restrictions.
The federal and state OPCs monitored several hundred organizations. Monitoring consisted of collecting information from public sources, written materials, and firsthand accounts but also included intrusive methods, such as the use of undercover agents who were subject to legal oversight. The FOPC and state OPCs published lists of monitored organizations, including left- and right-wing political parties. Although the law stipulates that surveillance must not interfere with an organization’s activities, representatives of some monitored groups, such as Scientologists, complained that the publication of the organizations’ names contributed to prejudice against them.
The FOPC monitored approximately 16,500 so called Reichsbuerger (“citizens of the empire”) and Selbstverwalter (self-administrators), a significant increase from the 10,000 monitored in 2016. These individuals denied the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany and rejected its legal system. The FOPC considered the groups to represent a potential threat due to their affinity for weapons and their contempt for national authorities. In 2017 members of Reichsbuerger and Selbstverwalter groups committed 911 politically motivated crimes; of these, authorities categorized 783 crimes as extremist and 130 as violent.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities in various states continued to detain for up to 18 months some asylum seekers whose applications were rejected pending their deportation. Courts permit authorities also to deport rejected asylum seekers without advance notification. Authorities could only detain asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants awaiting deportation to a country within the EU under the Dublin III regulation if there was evidence they posed a flight risk. In March authorities were holding 82 rejected asylum seekers pending deportation.
The government deported asylum seekers while their applications were pending review. One Uighur had an asylum hearing scheduled for the day he was returned to China, but state-level officials stated they did not receive a notification fax from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) (see below, Refoulement). On August 13-15, the Council of Europe’s Committee to Prevent Torture monitored treatment of unsuccessful asylum seekers during a charter flight returning them to Afghanistan.
Assaults on refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants; and attacks on government-provided asylum homes continued during the first half of the year. In February a man stabbed three refugees in the city of Heilbronn, Baden-Wuerttemberg. The attack severely injured a 25-year-old Iraqi man, and the other two men sustained minor injuries. In June prosecutors charged the suspect with attempted murder.
In-country Movement: Authorities issued three types of travel documents to stateless individuals, those with refugee and asylum status, and foreigners without travel documents. Stateless individuals received a “travel document for the stateless.” Those with recognized refugee and asylum status received a “travel document for refugees.” Foreigners from non-EU countries received a “travel document for foreigners” if they did not have a passport or identity document and could not obtain a passport from their country of origin.
Several states had an assigned residence rule requiring refugees with recognized asylum status to live within a specific city for a period of three years. As of April the states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt implemented the residence rule. Local authorities who supported the rule stated it facilitated integration and enabled authorities to plan for increased infrastructure needs, such as schools. In September the administrative court in Muenster, North Rhine-Westphalia, ruled that, while North Rhine-Westphalia could require those with recognized refugee status to live within the state, it could not require them to live in a specific city.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: In August, Bavarian authorities deported a 22-year-old Uighur man to China (see above Abuse of Refugees, Migrants, and Stateless Persons) prior to his asylum hearing. The asylum seeker’s lawyer was unable to establish contact with his client following his deportation and feared that Chinese authorities had detained him. In December the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the Uighur man had been arrested in China, and that they were working to have him returned to Germany.
In June the government lifted its deportation ban for Afghanistan, and three states began deportations to that country. Previous federal policy only permitted deportations of convicted criminals and those deemed a security risk. In August, 700 demonstrators in Munich protested the policy change. NGOs including Amnesty International criticized the policy as a breach of the principle of refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The country faced the task of integrating approximately 1.3 million asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who arrived between 2015 and 2017 as well as an additional 110,324 who requested asylum during the first six months of the year. The heavy influx of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants taxed the country’s infrastructure and resources.
The NGO Pro Asyl criticized the “airport procedure” for asylum seekers who arrive at the country’s airports. Authorities stated the airport procedure was used only in less complex cases, and that more complex asylum cases were referred for processing through regular BAMF channels. Authorities maintained that only persons coming from countries that the government identified as “safe”–the member states of the European Union, as well as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Senegal, and Serbia–and those without valid identification documents could be considered via the “fast track procedure.” The “fast track procedure” enabled BAMF to decide on asylum applications within a two-day period, during which asylum applicants were detained at the airport. If authorities denied the application, the applicant had the right to appeal. Appeals were processed within two weeks, during which the applicant was detained at the airport. If the appeal was denied, authorities deported the applicant. The NGO Fluechtlingsrat Berlin criticized a similar “fast track” or “direct” procedure applied to some asylum seekers in Berlin. The organization claimed asylum applicants were not provided with sufficient time and access to legal counsel.
In April, BAMF suspended the head of its Bremen branch amid allegations the official improperly approved up to 2,000 asylum applications. According to media reports, the official colluded with three lawyers and a translator between 2013 and 2017 to divert Yazidi applicants to Bremen. In May the Chief Public Prosecutor in Nuremberg announced an investigation of BAMF President Jutta Cordt for failing to prevent the practices in Bremen. The Federal Court of Auditors is currently auditing BAMF, and the allegations prompted a large-scale internal BAMF review of 2018 asylum cases.
In August the government resumed issuance of family reunification visas for those with subsidiary protection, a measure suspended in late 2016. The government is authorized to approve reunification visas for up to 1,000 family members per month–defined as spouses, minor children, or parents–of individuals who have subsidiary protection.
In February a Yazidi woman with refugee status living in Schwaebisch Gmuend (Baden-Wuerttemberg) reportedly encountered the ISIS member who tortured and raped her in Iraq in 2014. The case raised concerns about the government’s ability to protect refugees and screen migrants for ties to ISIS and other terror groups. The woman reported the case to the police, who opened an investigation. Police stated, however, that they were unable to locate the perpetrator, who was not registered as a refugee or resident in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The woman reported she felt unsafe, and she returned to Iraq. In June the federal attorney general’s office in Karlsruhe opened an investigation in the case, which continued at year’s end. The Baden-Wuerttemberg interior ministry’s spokesperson reported there were seven reports of Yazidi women encountering their attackers in Germany, one of which was found to be unsubstantiated.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the EU’s Dublin III regulation, which permits authorities to turn back or deport individuals who entered the country through the “safe countries of transit,” which include the EU member states, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. The government did not return asylum seekers to Syria. The government defines “safe countries of origin” to include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Senegal, Serbia, and EU states. The NGO Pro Asyl pointed out that refugees who under the Dublin III regulation fell into another EU state’s responsibility but could not be returned to that country, often remained in a legal grey zone. They were not allowed to work or participate in integration measures including German language classes.
Employment: Persons with recognized asylum status were able to access the labor market without restriction; asylum seekers whose applications were pending were generally not allowed to work during their first three months after applying for asylum. According to the Federal Employment Agency, approximately 482,000 refugees were unemployed as of July. Refugees and asylum seekers faced several hurdles in obtaining employment, including lengthy review times for previous qualifications, lack of official certificates and degrees, and limited German language skills.
The law excludes asylum seekers from countries considered “safe countries of origin” and unsuccessful asylum seekers who cannot be returned to the country through which they first entered the area covered by the Dublin III regulation from certain refugee integration measures, such as language courses and access to employment opportunities. The government did not permit asylum seekers and persons with a protected status from “safe countries of origin” to work if they applied for asylum after August 2015.
Access to Basic Services: State officials retain decision-making authority on how to house asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, and whether to provide allowances or other benefits.
Pro Asyl criticized a refugee center in Manching, Bavaria, that was converted into a “transit center” in May. The center housed more than 1,000 refugees and could process asylum applicants in one location from start to finish. Critics claimed the center’s isolated location in an industrial area and a policy that did not allow NGOs to access the center made it difficult for refugees to seek legal counsel and enroll in education and language programs.
Several states, including Berlin, Brandenburg Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia, provided medical insurance cards for asylum seekers. The insurance cards allow asylum seekers to visit any doctor of their choice without prior approval by authorities. In other states asylum seekers received a card only after 15 months, and community authorities had to grant permits to asylum seekers before they could consult a doctor. The welfare organization Diakonie, however, criticized the medical insurance card system, which only enabled asylum seekers to access emergency treatment. Local communities and private groups sometimes provided supplemental health care.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted for resettlement and facilitated the local integration (including naturalization) of refugees who had already fled their countries of origin, particularly for refugees belonging to vulnerable groups. Such groups included women with children, refugees with disabilities, victims of trafficking in persons, and victims of torture or rape. Authorities granted residence permits to long-term migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who could not return to their countries of origin.
The government assisted with the safe and voluntary return to their homes of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. In the first half of the year, authorities provided financial assistance to 1,500 individuals to facilitate voluntary returns to their country of origin. Beneficiaries were either rejected asylum seekers or foreigners without valid identification. The number of voluntary return beneficiaries decreased during the year, which BAMF attributed to the overall decrease in asylum seekers in the country.
The government also offered a return bonus of 800 to 1,200 euros ($920 to $1,380) per person to asylum seekers whose applications are pending but who are unlikely to have their applications approved. Among others, refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan extensively used the program.
Temporary Protection: The government provides two forms of temporary protection–subsidiary and humanitarian–for individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first six months of the year, the government extended subsidiary protection to 15,542 persons. This status is usually granted if a person does not qualify for refugee or asylum status but might face severe danger in his or her country of origin due to war or conflict. During the same period, 6,639 individuals were granted humanitarian protection. Humanitarian protection is granted if a person does not qualify for any form of protected status, but there are other humanitarian reasons the person cannot return to his or her country of origin (for example, unavailability of medical treatment in their country of origin for a health condition). Both forms of temporary protection are granted for one year and may be extended. After five years a person under subsidiary or humanitarian protection can apply for an unlimited residency status if he or she earns enough money to be independent of public assistance and has a good command of German.
UNHCR reported 13,458 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2017. Some of these persons lost their previous citizenship when the Soviet Union collapsed or Yugoslavia disintegrated. Others were Palestinians from Lebanon and Syria whom the government registered as stateless.
Laws and policies provide stateless persons the opportunity to gain citizenship on a nondiscriminatory basis. Stateless persons may apply for citizenship after six years of residence. Producing sufficient evidence to establish statelessness could often be difficult, however, because the burden of proof is on the applicant. Authorities generally protected stateless persons from deportation to their country of origin or usual residence if they faced a threat of political persecution there.