Explore More »

Lost Years

Raza Ibrahimovic  smiles sadly and shrugs his shoulders in an almost apologetic gesture: “Of course we are grateful that we could come here, that our lives and those of our families have been saved. But still, for most of us all these years in Germany were wasted years. We couldn’t work, our children couldn’t study. We are like plants, just standing around and waiting to be watered.” Raza Ibrahimovic was 32 when he came to Berlin in 1994. He is now 41. Before civil war ruined his home country in 1992, the light haired Bosnian had served as a mechanical engineer and officer in the Yugoslavian People’s Army, his last posting being in Kosovo. By early 1994, as a Muslim it became impossible for him to continue living in Ser-bia, and he was forced to flee the country. Like many refugees before him he chose to come to Germany because his relatives, who had come to the country as guest workers in the 1970’s, were still living there. Once in the country, he was given a Duldung or temporary ‘Tolerated’ status by the German authorities for a period of six months. 

The Duldung status was specially created by the German government in 1993 for refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Since these refugees were not forced to flee their country because of state persecution but because of civil war, Germany felt they could not be classified as asylum seekers or refugees as described in the Geneva Convention. Moreover, official refugee status would have allowed these people to remain in Germany on a permanent basis, but since the government wanted them to return home once the war ended, the Duldung status, permitting only temporary residence, was created. The Duldung must be renewed every three to twelve months. Under this status a person can theoretically attend school or university, though in practice there are many legal hurdles. He cannot receive vocational training and is not permitted to work but instead is provided with a reduced amount of social welfare. To obtain the temporary Befugnis (or authorization) status, which is the first step on the long road to a citizenship, the holder of a Duldung must demonstrate that he is currently employed. However, since the Duldung status does not entitle the holder to find work, most Bosnian refugees can never obtain the Befugnis status that would allow them to apply for permanent residence in Germany.  

Since his arrival in Germany, Raza Ibrahimovic has struggled to find permanent employment. He was given several extensions of his Duldung status lasting over eight years. Thanks to a special exemption, which enables Bosnian refugees to take up work if no one else can be found for the job, he started working part-time at an NGO a few years ago, and finally, in September 2002 received Befugnis (authorization) status because he had full-time employ-ment. “I was very lucky,” he says. “There are very few of us who manage to get his status.” However, his Befugnis is already at risk. Since he had been unemployed for a short period during the last two years, his Befugnis was only extended by three months in May 2003. He now has till August to prove that he has a full-time job and incase he is unable to do so, he will be forced to leave the country.

During the conflict in the Balkans in early 1990’s, Germany took in 350,000 refugees, amounting to nearly 50% of all refugees who fled to foreign countries. This number was greater than that taken in by all other European countries combined. Taking the view that these refugees would return to their homes after the war, the German government gave them all the Duldung status. More than 95% of them have left Germany in the meantime, and most of those who remain live in a constant state of insecurity. 

With the signing of the Dayton Accord in late 1995, Germany began preparations for the re-patriation of Bosnian refugees. Exceptions were made only for those persons who could prove that they were suffering from mental trauma or were chronically ill or very old. Such people, in some cases along with their families, were allowed to prolong their stay in Germany. Even for them, however, it was usually impossible to obtain anything more than yet another exten-sion to their Duldung status. 

German state governments instituted various programs, most commonly in the form of cash incentives, to encourage refugees to return home. The Berlin government pledged to pay a year’s salary to one family member if he returned home with his family and found a job. Re-construction projects were also begun in the newly formed Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina to provide employment for returning refugees and facilitating their return. The effectiveness of such programs was limited but what was more successful in influencing many refugees’ decision to return was the stringent refugee policy put in place by the German government and the lack of future perspective that it offered them.

Today there are less than 15,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia remaining in Germany, the vast majority of who remain on the Duldung status. A brief comparison to other European countries reveals the effects of Germany’s strict refugee policy. Austria with a population of only 8.2 million, ten times less than that of Germany, took in 67,000 refugees and by 2000 had given almost all of them the right to permanently stay. Sweden (population: 8.9 million) took in 53,000 Bosnian refugees and had given a permanent legal status to all of them by 2000. At the same time the Netherlands (population: 15.7 million) had successfully integrated 24,000 Bosnian refugees. The United States has to this day taken in 140,000 refugees, includ-ing 40,000 from Germany, all of whom can now remain in the country. Another telling statis-tic is that 70% of all refugees who have returned to Bosnia from abroad came from Germany. Even though Germany took in the greatest absolute number of refugees, as a percentage of its population it took in less refugees than Austria, Sweden and Denmark. Moreover, if we look at how many refugees were actually given the right to permanently stay, Germany ranks at the bottom of the list. 

Badem Kovacevic, who was recognized by the German government as being traumatized and finally given Befugnis status in September 2002, comments on this with a wry smile “My friends who went to the Netherlands instead of Germany visited me a few years after the war in their cars and told me of their new jobs and homes. They had reached a level of living and integration only a few years after fleeing to the Netherlands that we refugees in Germany can-not even imagine after being here for almost eleven years!” 

From the very beginning, the aim of the German government was to ensure that all 350,000 refugees it had taken in would return home. This policy was grounded in Germany’s situation as a country of asylum. Many factors contributed to the large number of refugees seeking asy-lum in Germany in the early 1990s: On the one hand, the breakdown of the Soviet block meant that many people from the former socialist countries sought a better future in the West, and being on the eastern edge of the then European Community made Germany the first port of entry. Other humanitarian crisis areas like Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan were also sources of a constant flow of refugees. 

The restrictive Duldung status was imposed on the refugees from Bosnia for several reasons: Firstly, the government wanted to set an example in order to discourage other refugees and asylum seekers from choosing Germany as a destination. The shift to a tougher policy was a signal aimed both at potential refugees in their countries of origin and at appeasing what the government then saw as the German public’s fear of their country being overwhelmed by mi-grants. In the early 1990s there had been several racially motivated attacks on foreigner’s homes, mostly in Eastern Germany. Though these attacks were followed by impressive dem-onstrations of solidarity with the victims by the German populace, they had a strong influence on the government’s perception of the German public’s stance on foreigners. Secondly, in view of the integration problem facing other migrant groups in Germany particularly the Turks, the German authorities were no doubt cowed at the prospect of taking responsibility for the integration of another large migrant group. Thirdly, Germany was still dealing with problems stemming from unification, paramount among which was the unemployment rate and there was a fear that allowing so many refugees to find work would deprive ordinary Germans of jobs. 

Unlike in Austria where the integration of refugees was a government priority, the German government’s adamant belief that all refugees should return once the war ended led them to house these refugees in special isolated complexes. These included containers, former army barracks and sometimes blocks of flats. In all cases, though, families and people unknown to each other shared rooms, showers and other amenities. This system of centralized housing contributed to isolating the refugee population from ordinary Germans. On the other hand, in Austria the refugees were housed in a decentralized manner all around the country, which led to much smoother integration. 

As far as integration into the labor market is concerned, there were also major differences between Germany’s approach and the policies of other European countries: In Austria, Swe-den and the Netherlands, refugees from Bosnia were allowed to find work and become finan-cially independent soon after their arrival. In contrast in Germany refugees were either not allowed to work at all or could do so but only under the precondition that no German citizen could be found to do the same work. In states like Berlin which had a high unemployment rate this policy effectively ensured that most refugees remained unemployed. Few refugees were able to find meaningful work and that too in mostly refugee oriented NGOs. A report by the Berlin based South East Europe Culture association in 2000 showed that only one out 378 Bosnian refugees the association was taking care of at the time had legal work, while all oth-ers were dependent on social welfare. Even if they did find work, refugees were still forced to leave the country once their Duldung status expired, often against the will of their employers. 

This de facto prohibition of work led to a situation where almost all refugees were drawing social welfare money – which gave rise to anti-foreigner populist arguments centered around the belief that refugees were benefiting from Germany’s generous social welfare system with-out contributing to it. Even though in theory refugees were not supposed to work, in practice many of them began to work illegally rather than simply sitting around all day. Consequently, they contributed to the growth of a thriving black labor market with low security and social standards. This situation shows that the argument put forward by German authorities – that refugees should not be allowed to work since they would take away jobs from German citi-zens – was not grounded in sound economic logic. It is needless to say that refugees who live off German tax money and get a second income from illegal work at the same time are even less likely to help foster understanding and support for their cause in German society. Fur-thermore, for those who did not find illegal work, the involuntary idleness became an obstacle to overcoming their war time traumas, a process which could have been eased by the distrac-tion that work offers.

Apart from access to work, access to education is a crucial precondition for successful inte-gration, especially for young refugees. Unfortunately in this regard too German authorities showed a lack of foresight. Though officials claimed that every Bosnian refugee could attend any university in Germany, few if any refugees were able to take advantage of this opportu-nity. The most immediate problem was a lack of access to information. Most refugees were never clearly informed of their rights. In most cases, refugee children under the age of sixteen were automatically put into a Hauptschule - the lowest level of secondary schools that ends after the 10th grade - without a prior check of their school performance. Moreover, even the German institutions, including schools, were often not aware of the refugees’ rights to educa-tion. Instead, they stressed the fact that the obligation to go to school ends at the age of 16 in Germany, and often sent refugee teenagers home after they reached this age.

Germany’s treatment of traumatized refugees was also far from adequate.

Firstly, the refugees could only see German doctors and psychiatrists, since Bosnian doctors were not allowed to practice. The fact that most refugees could not speak German meant that these sessions were of little help to them unless they brought along a translator. In many cases, their own children had to serve as translators since they were the only family members who spoke German (which they learned at school). This meant that the horrors of war that were witnessed by the parents were directly passed down to their children. Moreover, the state authorities did not pay for these sessions and refugees had to find their own funding if they wished to receive trauma treatment.

When the ministers of interior of the German states decided in 1996 that all Bosnian refugees would have to go back to their country of origin, they made an exception for severely trauma-tized people. However they did not specify what criteria would be used to determine who was traumatized, or who would be certified to make such a decision. This led to a direct confronta-tion between NGOs and government authorities. The NGOs employed their own psychiatrists and attempted to have as many refugees certified as traumatized as possible so that they may be allowed to stay in the country, while the state employed another set of police psychiatrists, most of whom were not trained to deal with such cases. The result was that only one out of every five traumatized cases was actually recognized by the authorities. 

The German government’s attitude towards Bosnian refugees seems to have been driven by the belief that if they were given the choice to remain in the country, then all of them would have chosen to stay - and by the fear of the public’s backlash against any such action. Moreo-ver, aliens provided an easy scapegoat in times of high unemployment and general downturn in the economy. If the authorities had given these refugees the chance to work legally and be productive, they would not have been such a burden on the social welfare system but would have in fact contributed to it. It is also important to note that many of these refugees were not unskilled but highly skilled professional including doctors, engineers and lawyers who could have provided a boost to the German economy if provided with the opportunity to work. The government’s fear that once given the chance everyone would opt to stay in the country also looks rather unfounded, as many refugees did voluntarily return home, even from other coun-tries where they were given better opportunities.

Furthermore, refugee policies should have been decided at the federal level so that a more consistent stance could have been developed rather then leaving the various states to impose their own regulations. Clear criteria should have been set out as to who could stay, and it should have been meticulously described how such criteria would be judged as well as who would be responsible for the decision making process. Such measures should be considered essential when people’s future is at stake. Moreover, all legal information should have been made readily available and explained to the refugees themselves since they were most directly affected.

It is now imperative that Germany give the 15,000 Bosnian refugees who still remain in the country, and represent the worst cases of trauma, the permanent right to stay. However, such an action does not represent the only change Germany needs in its refugee policy. What is more important is a change in the attitude of the German government and people towards refugees in general. Refugees must not only be seen as people who need to be provided tem-porary shelter and assistance and then sent home but as people who can become productive members of society and who can contribute to and enrich the country, if one gives them the chance to do so. Germans must learn to recognize that their country is one of immigration and overcome their instinctive fear of migrants whether they are refugees or asylum seekers. Only once this fact has been recognized can real progress be made. However, until such a time the words of Badem Kovacevic will ring true: “A lot of people have supported me here, and helped me keeping my dignity and self respect. But in retrospect, Germany and particularly Berlin were the wrong destinations for us refugees to go to.”


Interview Partners:

Omer Dzananovic, a Bosnian refugee who came to Germany in 1993 at the age of 20. Omer Dzananovic has worked for refugee-orientated NGOs and IGOs including seven years at the UNHCR.

Ronald Franke, Managing Director of Publicata e.V. (Association for the Promotion of Public Interest in Foreigners’ Integration and Development Cooperation) and Editor in Chief of the magazine DAMID (Development and Migration in International Dialogue).

Antje Hofert, working for the Berlin-based NGO RAA (Regional Office for Questions of For-eigners, Youth Work and School).

Raza Ibrahimovic (name changed), in Berlin since 1994 as a refugee from Bosnia. He works on a part-time basis at the refugee-oriented Berlin-based NGO South East Europe Culture e.V.

Prof. Barbara John, former Commissioner for Foreigners’ Affairs in the City of Berlin.

Badem Kovacevic (name changed), Bosnian refugee living in Berlin since 1994. Badem Kovacevic is working for South East Europe Culture.

Christoph Rolle, working at South East Europe Culture e.V.

Tuna Sakica (name changed), a 16-year old refugee from Kosovo.

Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, former secretary-general of the Free Democratic Party and for-mer Commissioner for Foreigners’ Affairs of the Federal Government. 

Resources Used:

Ausländerbeauftragte des Senats von Berlin (Hg.): 2000, Bericht über den Stand der freiwilli-gen Rückkehr von Flüchtlingen aus Bosnien-Herzegowina und dem Kosovo, Berlin: Auslän-derbeauftragte des Senats (http://www.berlin.de/auslaendische-buerger/SenGesSozV/auslaen-der/doku/report-ger.pdf)

Die Bundesausländerbeauftragte, Informationen zu chronisch traumatisierten Flüchtlingen aus Bosnien und Herzegowina, (www.bundesauslaenderbeauftragte.de/themen/infotraum/htm)

Jäger, Torsten; Rezo, Jasna: 2000, Zur sozialen Struktur der bosnischen Kriegsflüchtlinge in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Arbeiterwohlfahrt Bundesverband u.a. (Hg.), Pro Asyl, Frankfurt (www.proasyl.de/lit/bosnien/text0.htm)

Statement vom 29. 5. 2000 des UNHCR-Vertreters in der BRD, Jean-Noel Wetterwald zur sozialen Struktur der bosnischen Flüchtlinge in Deutschland (http://www.heinzke-darius.de/kunden/fluechtlingsrat-de/html/fluechtlingspolitik/1038854391/1049218303/file10-49218753dow.pdf)

Auf der Suche nach dem Alltag: Ein »Café Duldung« in Bosnien? (www.jungewelt.de/2002/ 11-16/023.php)

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2003

Related Media

Browse all content