“Migration is a normal condition”

Miriam Schader and Constantin Hruschka on the Science Initiative Migration

December 10, 2020

The “summer of migration” 2015 happened more than five years ago, and the three words which were spoken, which had such an impact, uttered by Chancellor Angela Merkel, with reference to the ability to cope with the number of refugees. Five years after Merkel’s historic statement “wir schaffen das” (“we can handle this”), the crossinstitute Science Initiative Migration (WiMi) created in 2017 by the Max Planck Society has published its final report. Researchers from six Max Planck Institutes were involved in the multi-disciplinary project. Two of them are Miriam Schader, Max Planck Institute for for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, and Constantin Hruschka, Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. A double interview.

What was the overarching question that this joint project wanted to answer? And how did you attempt to answer it?

Miriam Schader: What is happening with migration, throughout the world and in Germany? That was the really big question we wanted to answer. As a social science Institute, we chose a project with an anthropological-ethnographic approach and a strong organizational, sociology-political science project. We wanted to show what has happened in Germany at a local level since 2015.

Constantin Hruschka: At our MPI, we wanted to work in an interdisciplinary way, from the legal and social sciences perspective. We surveyed people with different statuses. We focussed on Afghan citizens – a group that is particularly relevant in the migration discussion. Our basic theory was that the impact of the law is overestimated in jurisprudence, and is often underestimated in the social sciences, since people focus on the local problems and lose sight of the legal framework.

Let’s take a closer look at your specific research projects as an example. What question were you attempting to answer?

Schader: My project focuses specifically on the local level. I studied how municipalities in Lower Saxony dealt with the new arrivals. I conducted interviews with people in positions of authority at different levels in the selected towns. I was interested in how the administrative authorities were able to deal with a large, rapid influx of people. The project showed very clearly that despite all the challenges, the municipalities remained able to act. And indeed, that they really could change things. I conducted further research in this area.

Hruschka: We looked at the impact of the ongoing legislation. The question arose in the years after 2016, since changes were being made to the law every two months on average. Does that have an effect on the ground? What impact does it have on the legal system? We determined that as a result of this “hyperactive” legislation, the administration picks and chooses the laws that it wants to apply to a certain extent, since the overall framework is no longer coherent. On this basis, we researched different examples, such as access to the labour market.

So you then investigated to what extent the laws contradict each other or administrations only use certain laws as instruments and completely ignore others?

Hruschka: This is not an easy question to answer. To put it simply, the problem is that the migration debate is being conducted between the poles of integration and repatriation. Some people say: "If I create integration incentives, repatriations no longer work well." Others believe: "We have to have an integration policy that gives opportunities to those in need of protection and all those who actually stay." The main discussion takes place in the grey area - on refugees who are not in need of protection in the asylum law sense, but stay anyway. And that is also where the big battlefield lies, which is clearly reflected in the legislation.

In what way?

Hruschka: The responsibilities are divided between the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for deportations and asylum decisions, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, which is more responsible for integration, but at the same time always has to coordinate with the federal states. The reception of refugees itself is a matter for the federal states and ultimately also a municipal matter. That is why so many different approaches arise in practice. In the end, it is decided at the municipal level which policy will be pursued.

A particular feature of the project was the interdisciplinary work involved. What did that mean for you?

Schader: We were in intensive discussions with colleagues from other areas of research. Social scientists had a similar perspective, while legal specialists took a different view. My colleagues and I learned a lot and benefited from being able to talk to the legal experts at regular intervals.

Hruschka: The fact that we were able to latch on to Ms Schader’s research meant that we could formulate our question in a different way, namely, to study what was “meant seriously” by the introduction of the laws, and what was ultimately intended as political symbolism. I can tell you something about legislative processes, but as a legal specialist, it is not possible per se to say what impact the law has.

With a view to Merkel’s much-quoted sentence “We can handle this!”, what, for you, are the key findings of the WiMi research project?

Hruschka: From a jurisprudence perspective, I must say that in 2015/2016 the law found good answers to the new challenges. There was a focus on practical problems, and solutions were created for them. I can give you a clear example of this: There was a need for large-scale accommodation. The German construction planning law and the building laws were not prepared for this eventuality. Accommodation had to be converted, and made suitable for the new form of use. A large number of regulations were altered to make this possible quickly. Here, the law turned out to be highly efficient. The more politicized the debate became, the less focussed the regulations were on practical implementation. The longer the whole process lasted, the more the law was used to deal with pseudo-problems, rather than those that really did arise when receiving the refugees and that related to the challenges faced by the municipal authorities. That is also linked to the legal structure, since reception of refugees is regulated in the laws of the federal states. In other words, there is only so much that can be regulated through federal law. For most people, constant changes to the law give the impression that the authorities don’t have the situation under control. That’s why we’ve called the period after mid2015 the “panic phase”.

Do we need better tools, or should we be honest at the political level?

Schader: I think that at the municipal level, there is already a desire for greater honesty. In the interviews I conducted there, I frequently heard criticism of the people in higher levels of authority, usually the federal and federal state politicians. Criticism was also directed at the measures that from the point of view of the local administrations often ignored the reality on the ground, as well as the unwillingness to deal with these realities. Take mini-jobs for asylum seekers, for example, where pressure was put on the municipal authorities to implement the measures very quickly. For the municipal authorities, this entailed a great deal of work, and had relatively little impact, since it was far too complex to realize. This is just one example that demonstrates that at the municipal level, the tools didn’t always seem to fit the situation for the people on the ground who were given responsibility for implementing them.

In light of the events of 2015, what do you think we could do better? And what framework would politicians need to create?

Hruschka: In terms of practical administration, there must be a much bigger focus on perceiving people as individuals. I think that in legal terms, the requirement to treat all people equally was abandoned at certain points, and that asylum seekers were classified according to their country of origin, even though legally, they are all in the same situation. That makes the overall legal framework extremely incoherent. If a legal system wants to tackle a situation by means of the law, then it must also be clear that comparable situations should be treated in the same way. After all, we have one asylum system.

Schader: From a social sciences perspective, we coped with the reception of the influx of people very well. The important structures continued to function. However, during this period, a lot of people suffered. By this, I mean those who did not get the support they needed, because the individual situation was not taken sufficiently into account, whether intentionally or unintentionally. When it comes to asylum, it is particularly difficult to do justice to each individual person. Just think of the many different languages or different forms of state with which the people who come to us are familiar. Regardless of the political line that you take, it should be no surprise that people migrate. People do so because they are in difficult situations. That’s a normal set of circumstances. I have the feeling that our politics are so muddled because, we always start to think from the beginning about migration, and don’t regard it as being a constant, natural part of life.

The project has been completed after around three years. Where is further research needed?

Hruschka: There should be a much more in-depth study of the history of asylum (law). I have been researching the asylum field for 20 years. Many of the discussions that have now intensified have been ongoing for 20, maybe even 30 years. But the politicians keep changing, and there are always new people there who write the draft laws, and some of them think that they need to reinvent everything from scratch. It would be of great benefit to conduct more intensive research on the structural problems in this field, which have also been evident in the past.

Schader: We should also be discussing the climate, particularly in relation to migration research. Here in Göttingen, for example, I attended an event at which the people in authority claimed that the refugees were destroying climate protection measures. This isn’t just racist; it’s also completely wrong. This is a focus of research that has been entirely overlooked to date.

What do you think about Horst Seehofer’s claim that 2015 should not be repeated, in light of the disaster in Moria?

Schader: If necessary, there should be a repeat of 2015. Then, people showed how willing they are to help others, on a scale rarely seen to date in Germany and Europe. That was an incredible social movement. And what the administrative authorities managed to achieve was hugely impressive. However, the chaotic way in which the situation was handled should not be repeated. This led to major challenges, for the administrative authorities, for the courts, and for the individual refugees, for whom it was a matter of luck as to whether or not they happened to be in Hungary on the right date, or whether they were still in Turkey. In order to be better organized for when people come to us, as well as to avoid situations such as that in Moria, we have to accept the fact that people will come here, also in the long term.

Hruschka: I do agree with Mr Seehofer on one thing: what shouldn’t be repeated is the fragmentation of Europe. The corona border controls at the internal borders would not have been possible without the migration border controls of 2015. European “collaboration” often consisted of shifting the responsibility to other countries. What we achieved domestically in Germany went horribly wrong in Europe. The development of national egoisms – along the lines of “As long as we’re alright, everything is OK” – is another consequence of 2015. So yes, that, in my view, is something that shouldn’t happen again.

Interview: Christina Beck and Petra Maaß 

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