Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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).
In May, Facebook announced it had removed 2.19 billion “fake profiles” between January and March, including some that promoted the AfD, after the NGO Avaaz identified them as sources of targeted misinformation. Saarland AfD politician Laleh Hadjimohamadvali claimed her posts had been deleted or blocked in the past, which deprived her of her freedom of expression.
Lower Saxony’s government approved a law in March that makes it illegal for judges and state prosecutors to wear religious symbols openly during public trials. This includes (Muslim) headscarves, (Christian) crosses, and (Jewish) kippas. Similar laws already existed in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, and Bremen, while Hesse and Thuringia imposed more vague limits on religious attire for judges and state prosecutors.
Georg Restle, the host of the left-leaning political TV program “Monitor” on Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), received a death threat by mail after he made critical comments about the AfD on July 11. WDR has filed charges against the unknown perpetrator, and 44 WDR journalists expressed solidarity with Restle in an ad in the local newspaper Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger. After the threat, Restle requested stronger protection for freedom of speech and press. The threatening letter appeared to have the same author as similar letters sent to Cologne Mayor Reker and to Altena Mayor Hollstein. The Federal Prosecutor assumed that an individual with a right-wing extremist background was responsible. Cologne police were investigating.
Press and Media, including Online Media: 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.
Violence and Harassment: On May 1, during a demonstration of the far-right Pro Chemnitz movement in the city of Chemnitz, a journalist from the local daily Freie Presse was threatened by protesters. Instead of defending the journalist’s right to cover the demonstration, police forced him to delete his pictures and afterwards expelled him from the demonstration site. Later, police released a statement saying it was a “misunderstanding.” Pro Chemnitz is a right-wing organization which the Saxony Office for the Protection of the Constitution monitors to evaluate whether it should be banned.
In August 2018 representatives of the anti-Islam Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident movement and the AfD party protested Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Dresden. A demonstrator (an off-duty police employee) claimed privacy laws prohibited a ZDF camera team from filming him, and he filed a complaint with police on the spot. Police held the camera team for 45 minutes, reportedly to verify their identities. Chancellor Merkel issued a statement in support of press freedom and noted that demonstrators should expect they may be filmed. The Dresden Police Commissioner apologized to the journalists, and the police employee was transferred to the state directorate in September 2018. In June the employee sued ZDF for violating media law and his personal rights. The case was ongoing as of November.
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 exception is that 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.
In July the NRW Justice Minister announced the creation of a central office for severe cases of politically motivated hate speech on the Internet, such as death threats against politicians on social media.
In February 2018, NRW launched the statewide project “Prosecution Rather Than Deletion–Law Enforcement on the Internet.” Through November it received 378 offense reports, leading to 182 investigation procedures and the identification of 73 defendants. Other contributors to the initiative include NRW Justice and Interior Ministries, the Cologne police headquarters, and media outlets Rheinische Post and RTL.
There were 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.
The government restricted the freedom of peaceful assembly 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 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.
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.
In February the Duesseldorf administrative court ruled that the police ban of the planned Kurdish demonstration “Against the war in Afrin” in February 2018 was unlawful. The court found the police assumption that the protest group was a suborganization of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party was false and the ban disproportionate. It ordered the police to compensate the protest group 5,000 euros ($5,500).
The government restricted freedom of association 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 federal and state OPCs published lists of monitored organizations, including left- and right-wing political parties. Although the law stipulates surveillance must not interfere with an organization’s legitimate activities, representatives of some monitored groups, such as Scientologists, complained that the publication of the organizations’ names contributed to prejudice against them.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
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.
In 2016 the federal government issued a law requiring refugees with recognized asylum status who received social benefits to live within the state that handled their asylum request for a period of three years, and several states implemented the residence rule. States themselves can add other residence restrictions, such as assigning a refugee to a specific city. Local authorities who supported the rule stated that it facilitated integration and enabled authorities to plan for increased infrastructure needs, such as schools.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: On August 21, the law addressing deportation, known as “better implementing the obligation to leave the country,” entered into force. In an open letter, 22 NGOs, including lawyers’ and judges’ associations and child rights, welfare, and human rights organizations, called on the Bundestag to reject the law, which they criticized for its focus on ostracizing migrants and for its alleged violation of human rights. Under the law, all asylum seekers will have to remain in initial reception facilities until the end of their asylum procedure, up to 18 months. Until passage of the new law, this only applied to those from “safe countries of origin.” Rejected asylum seekers who do not cooperate sufficiently in obtaining travel documents can be obliged to stay in the institutions for longer than 18 months. Authorities are now able to arrest persons who are obliged to leave the country without a court order. Persons obliged to leave the country who do not attend an embassy appointment to establish their identity can be placed in detention for 14 days. The law indicates that persons detained under “deportation detention”–including families and children–will be held in regular prisons. NGOs such as Pro Asyl, Amnesty International, and the Jesuit Refugee Service criticized this as contradicting “the clear case law of the European Court of Justice,” which calls for a strict separation of deportation detention and imprisonment. Refugees deemed to be flight risks can be taken into preventive detention. Officials who pass on information about a planned deportation are liable to prosecution. Legal scholars stress the regulations are legally problematic, as both the German constitution and the EU Return Directive pose high hurdles for deportation detention. The law also provides for the withdrawal of all social benefits from those recognized as asylum seekers in other EU states after two weeks. Of the 16 federal states, 11 announced they would not implement the law.
Assaults on refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants continued, as did attacks on government-provided asylum homes. On April 14, a video appeared online showing four security guards beating an asylum seeker in Halberstadt, Saxony-Anhalt. Saxony-Anhalt’s Interior Ministry suspended the four security guards and ordered an investigation of the incident. The investigation was ongoing as of November.
In May the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) criticized the country’s deportation practices for rejected asylum seekers, including the practice of not informing detainees of their exact deportation date. In its report the CPT also called on the country’s government to refrain when deporting migrants from “disproportionate and inappropriate” use of force, such as methods that cause suffocation or severe pain. On a deportation flight in August 2018 the CPT’s experts had witnessed a police officer pressing his arm against a deportee’s neck, which restricted his ability to breathe. Another police officer repeatedly squeezed the genitals of the same man, who was tied with tape. The CPT also specifically condemned methods in the Eichstaett, Bavaria, detention center, where security guards were not specially trained and detainees lived in prison-like conditions that included limited access to multipurpose rooms, lack of access to their own clothing, and no ability to speak directly to a doctor. In response, the Federal Ministry of Justice rejected accusations that a direct visit to the doctor was not possible. It further asserted detainees usually did not have enough clothing to change regularly and needed to supplement this with clothing from the detention center when their own clothing was being washed.
Refoulement: In 2018 the government lifted its deportation ban for Afghanistan, and approximately 200 refugees were deported to that country during the first six months of the year. Previous federal policy permitted deportations only of convicted criminals and those deemed a security risk. 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 305,943 who requested asylum in 2018 and 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 Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) channels. Authorities maintained that only persons coming from countries the government identified as “safe” (see below) 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 2018 BAMF suspended the head of its Bremen branch amid allegations that the official improperly approved up to 2,000 asylum applications. In April, however, a BAMF review concluded that just 50 Bremen asylum decisions (0.9 percent) should be subject to legal review–a proportion below the national average of 1.2 percent.
A Hamburg lawyer and former Green party state parliamentarian confirmed in February that he was representing four German families with seven children aged two to 14 who were calling on the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs for repatriation from Syria and Iraq, where they had joined the Islamic State. In April the government allowed one of the mothers to return from Iraq to Germany with her three children; the mother was promptly arrested. In November an appeals court in Berlin ruled the German government must repatriate from Syria the German wife and three children of an Islamic State member. Their lawyer said he hoped the decision would set a precedent for the 20 other German mothers and 40 children he represented.
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 “safe countries of transit,” which include the EU member states, and Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. “Safe countries of origin” also include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Senegal, and Serbia. The government did not return asylum seekers to Syria. 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 gray 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 200,000 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 some asylum seekers from access to certain refugee integration measures, such as language courses and employment opportunities. This applies to 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. 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 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.
Several states 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 criticized the medical insurance card system, which only enabled asylum seekers to obtain 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 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 asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants with the safe and voluntary return to their countries. In the first half of the year, authorities provided financial assistance of 300 to 500 euros ($330 to $550) to 6,786 individuals to facilitate voluntary returns to their country of origin. Beneficiaries were either rejected asylum seekers or foreigners without valid identification.
The government also offered a return bonus of 800 to 1,200 euros ($880 to $1,320) per person to asylum seekers whose applications were pending but who were unlikely to have their applications approved. Most of the applicants who received this bonus came from Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Iraq.
Temporary Protection: The government provides two forms of temporary protection–subsidiary and humanitarian–for individuals who do not qualify as refugees. In the first six months of the year, the government extended subsidiary protection to 11,855 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, 3,872 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 14,779 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2018. 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.