Refugees and violenceExplosive violence and victim rights

The Refugee Explosion – Case study: Germany

This article is part of AOAV’s report, The Refugee Explosion. The whole report can be found here. Whilst the report introduction and methodology can be seen here. The key findings can be viewed here. The report overview of explosive violence and refugees can be read here, as well as on refugee destinations, here, asylum law in Europe, here, and political and economic developments, here.  AOAV’s country findings for the UK, and Greece can be found here and here, respectively. For the report’s overall findings please click here, or for AOAV’s resulting recommendations here. To read some of the interviews from refugees AOAV spoke to please see here.

AOAV identified three countries that have presented very different reactions to the crisis, as well as situations for the refugees and asylum seekers that inhabit their borders. AOAV sent field researchers to investigate how each country is responding to the refugee crisis. Refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, Germany and the UK were interviewed about their experiences in the host country as well as their reasons for seeking refuge. In total, over 250 filled in a questionnaire on such issues across the three countries.

Below are AOAV’s findings from Germany.



In 2015, according to Germany’s own refugee agency data, Germany registered a historic peak of 1,091,894 asylum seekers, the highest number of refugees arriving in a Western country since World War II. While 53,347 refugees applied for asylum in Germany 2011, that number rose by almost 400% within three years and by 2014, Germany was to receive some 202,843 applications. In the following year, this number soared further by 235% to 476,649 and reached its peak in 2016 with 745,545 applications.

This upwards trend was mainly caused by a surging number of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which rank among AOAV’s top six countries worst affected by explosive violence 2011 to 2016.

The number of Syrian nationals who applied for protection in Germany skyrocketed by 10,108%, from 2,634 in 2011 to 266,250 in 2016. 7,767 Afghan nationals applied for protection in Germany 2011, which increased by 1,635% to 127,012 in 2016.

Applications from Iraqi nationals rose by 1,648% from 5,831 in 2011 to 96,116 in 2016.

The same three countries stand out as the countries whose nationals’ applications have the highest acceptance rates. In 2015, 95.8% of Syrian applicants were granted protection, 85.5% of Iraqis and 27.8% of Afghans. Applicants from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Macedonia are consistently rejected with acceptance rates below 1%.

Germany’s refugee policy follows four patterns; first,Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan constantly rank among the top countries of origin, the top countries for positive asylum outcomes and are also among those most heavily affected by explosive violence. Secondly, refugees from Balkan countries are not affected by explosive violence and rejected with little exception.

Thirdly, applicants from Nigeria, Yemen and Pakistan are predominantly rejected as well, although all three countries rank among the AOAV’s list of countries worst affected by explosive violence.

Iran and Eritrea, where refugees are often persecuted according to the UN definition of a refugee, have a consistent acceptance rate of approximately 40%.


Refugee camp in Hamburg, Germany

On August 25th 2015, Berlin suspended the Dublin III regulation for Syrian nationals, thereby allowing them to apply for asylum in Germany even if they entered another EU Member State first. The step refuelled the debate of refugees in Germany – with politicians seeking to separate between ‘economic migrants’, people who come to Germany seeking personal economic betterment, and refugees who are forced to flee war and persecution.

Domestically, the arrival of refugees appears to have fuelled the rising popularity of right wing parties. Ten of the sixteen Länder in Germany had elections for their state parliaments from 2014 onwards. In all ten, the German neo-conservative right wing party ‘Alternative for Germany’ (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD) moved into parliament. Their presence is strong in Saxony Anhalt with 28% (25 of 87 seats), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with 25% (18 of 71 seats) and Berlin with 15% (24 of 160 seats). In such a way, then, it is fair to surmise that explosive violence has been the main factor in propelling refugees to Germany and that concern over refugees in Germany has helped caused the rise of right wing parties there.

Such political changes have happened despite a relative absence of refugees being portrayed badly in the media. According to one media analysis, out of 34,000 examined articles from 2009 to 2015 in the German language media, 82% drew a positive picture of refugees, 12% were neutral and 6% were negative.

Furthermore, when the Dublin regulation was suspended for Syrian nationals, all the main German newspapers – FAZ, SZ and the tabloid paper Bild – backed Merkel’s decision. The reasons for this support can be partly found in Germany’s history. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, ‘coming to terms with the past’, plays a dominant role in the German political discourse. The collective guilt of the Holocaust, linked to the notion that Germany has learnt from its past contributed to the responsible media coverage and a widely positive reaction towards refugees who flee from war and violence.

Furthermore, the refugee crisis has been seen to many to constitute a massive economic stimulus programme for Germany. Estimated costs of the refugee crisis range between 20 and 30 billion Euros. This has boosted SME growth and created employment, despite the common perception of “foreigners stealing jobs”.


All applications for asylum in Germany are processed by the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

This agency decides which type of protection the German state offers to an asylum seeker. Such an application can have five potential outcomes; an applicant is awarded refugee protection (Flüchtlingss-chutz); entitlement to asylum (Asylberechtigung); subsidiary protection (subsidiärer chutz); a national ban on deportation (nationales Abschiebungsverbot); or the applicant is rejected (abgelehnt).

From a legal perspective, refugee protection and entitlement to asylum are different in Germany as asylum constitutes a constitutional right, whereas refugee protection is a status defined under international law.

De facto, a person granted refugee protection receives the same rights and benefits as a person entitled to asylum. The right to asylum is based on Article 16a para. 1 of the Basic Law and is granted to a person who is persecuted on political grounds. A person entitled to asylum receives a residence permit for three years, is entitled to privileged family reunification, unrestricted access to the labour market and can apply for citizenship after three years, if sufficient knowledge of German language and a stable income can be shown. Refugees are granted the same rights.

Section 3 subs. 1 of the Asylum Act transposes the UNCRSR provisions into German law. Accordingly, refugee status is awarded in Germany following the definition from 1951.

Section 4 subs. 1 of the Asylum Act transposes the EU Directive’s targets into German national law. German law uses the exact wording of the Directive on serious harm. Although the provisions of preamble 35 2011/95/EU are not included in the German Asylum Act, serious harm has to exist in the form of an ‘individual threat’. Legally speaking, this excludes many types of explosive violence, as its indiscriminate nature does not intentionally target individuals. Civilian casualties are termed a ‘by-product’.

According to AOAV’s field research, the ‘individual threat’ lies at the heart of Germany’s asylum decision-making. Refugees must prove that the threat they face is more than a general exposure to war and violence, except for Syrian nationals who arrived between 25th August 2015 and 20th March 2016. Authorities scrutinise the evidence meticulously; refugees are obliged to present written evidence, show pictorial evidence and describe situations in full detail in order to prove their origin and story.

Bans on deportation

Bans on deportation are issued when an applicant is rejected but where a return to the home country would breach Germany’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), or if the ‘foreigner faces a substantial concrete danger to his or her life and limb or liberty’ (Section 60 subs. 5, subs. 7 Residence Act).

Though these bans are a ‘method of last resort’, issued when the court judges the situation too dangerous for the applicant to return, critics say that they cause stress, fear and uncertainty as the situation is reassessed every six months, leaving the individual in a state of permanent insecurity as to their future.

Most recent bans on deportation have been issued for Afghan nationals: 19% of all applications from Afghan nationals in 2015 and 18.9% in 2014.

These high numbers indicate that explosive violence may well be considered a reason for a ban on deportation. Nonetheless, Germany began to deport rejected asylum-seekers to Afghanistan in December 2016.


According to the German Federal Chamber of psychotherapists (BPTK), between 40 and 50% of refugees in Germany suffer from PTSD and around 50% show signs of depression. Approximately 40% of those with a psychological illness were reported to have plans to commit suicide or had tried to do so.

However, only 4% refugees of those suffering from PTSD had access to therapy. German law (Directive 2013/33/EU was transposed into national law) only grants psychological assistance to unaccompanied refugee minors, and to victims of torture, rape or other forms of serious psychological, sexual or physical violence. Explosive violence does not constitute a reason for treatment.

Usually, authorities determine whether an asylum seeker is to be granted access to therapy in the first 15 months of the application process. Problems often lie in such decision-making; officials or doctors are often responsible for determining the extent of psychological wounds, not qualified psychologists. Additionally, psychological illness is often judged as non-urgent or treated solely with medication.

After 15 months, refugees have the same access to public healthcare as German nationals. AOAV’s research found that many refugees in Germany are not informed as to how to access psychological support. Moreover, psychological problems are not recognised as a medical problem in the cultures of some of the refugees, hence seeking such support is often stigmatised. Most importantly, refugees are often too traumatised to leave their camps to seek support; flashbacks, the unknown environment and even open racism on the streets can, it was said by some, become an insurmountable barrier.


102 questionnaires were completed in Germany. Of those who filled in the questionnaire, the three main countries of origin were Syria (with 51), Afghanistan (18), and Iraq (13).

Experience of explosive violence

According to AOAV’s field research in Germany, 67% of refugees interviewed said that they were personally impacted by explosive violence. 55% of Syrians said that they were directly affected by or exposed to explosive violence, compared to 92% of Iraqis and 100% of Afghans.

47% reported witnessing the use of airstrikes, 57% saw shelling and 50% had seen an IED attack (including roadside bomb, suicide attack, and car bomb) – all of which fulfil the criteria to most likely cause trauma, as they are unexpected, repetitive and/or intentionally cruel.

Reasons for fleeing

51% said that they were fleeing from war, whilst an additional 13% cited safety as their main reason for fleeing.

40% of the refugees reported that their homes were destroyed, while 29% did not know what happened to their homes.


22% of refugees that AOAV spoke to in Germany said they had been offered psychological assistance.  It must be noted, however, that highly traumatised refugees may not leave the confines of the camps or agree to be interviewed, so this number is unlikely to represent the exact situation.


Germany showed an impressive dedication to human rights when it symbolically opened the doors for refugees from Syria on 25th August 2015. Seven months later, the doors were closed. The EU-Turkey deal, largely negotiated by Merkel after she came under pressure from the right, was a step back from this position.

AOAV interviewed many refugees who lived in Turkey before they travelled to Europe, and all agreed that Turkey is increasingly becoming autocratic, civil rights are being eroded, refugees struggle to find paid work, and support is limited to their most basic needs.

Accordingly, the EU-Turkey deal should be subject to greater scrutiny, and re-evaluated so that the needs and safety of refugees are held above all else, with parallel support from EU states to ensure these provisions are met in Turkey.

Germany’s deportation of refuges back to Afghanistan should be done with extreme caution. Afghanistan has been plagued by explosive violence for decades and consistently ranks among the top five countries worst affected by explosive violence on AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor. Many refugees from Afghanistan that AOAV spoke to were deeply fearful of deportation – there have been reports of Afghan returnees from Pakistan and Europe who have been killed when they were returned and others who committed suicide after being told they were being deported.

Whilst Germany for the most part provides adequate living situations for refugees, the main problems are for those who must reside in mass shelters in which more than 100 people live in a single space. Mass shelters can be an extremely stressful environment, particularly for pregnant women, children and those who suffer from psychological distress. Germany should avoid the use of such shelters and seek move those residing in these shelters to somewhere more adequate.

Psychological support is essential for many refugees and may be necessary to help integration. The free psychological care that was provided to some was said to be incredibly helpful to those that AOAV inter viewed. However, those in most need often do not receive such support, as many are either unaware the support exists or do not know how to access these services. AOAV found repeatedly that those who witnessed explosive violence experienced mental suffering, however support was rarely offered. More efficient screening and extending psychological assistance to more refugees is considered likely to have a positive effect on refugees and German society as a whole.

Germany’s asylum law requires the asylum-seeker to define the ‘individual threat’ he or she faces at home. Such specific issues require professional translations; however, these are often not available. As Afghans do not enjoy the high acceptance rates of Syrians and often do not fall into the Refugee Convention category of a refugee, they must meticulously describe the threat they face at home. For such complex topics, interpreters and translations need to be well-trained and under oath.  Inadvertent mistakes could lead to the deportation of a whole family.