The Five Questions Series is a forum for scholars, government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign policy practitioners to provide timely analysis of new developments related to the advancement of women and girls worldwide. This interview is with Franziska Brantner, member of the German Bundestag and spokesperson for child and family policy for the parliamentary group of Bündnis 90/The Greens.
Recent reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) find that female refugees en route to Europe and in European shelter facilities face grave protection risks, including trafficking, abuse, and sexual violence. Can you describe the conditions of the typical refugee shelter in Germany, and what steps are taken to protect vulnerable populations, like women and children?
Many shelters in Germany are horrible for women. For example, many don’t have separate toilets, and, in some shelters, we see gangs of men de facto controlling the toilets. The risks of sexual violence against women refugees fleeing conflict are not only present as they travel in the Balkans, but also within Germany. There is sexual violence in camps and no formal mechanisms to respond to it. Many women don’t even know who to go to. Then there are cases where a shelter does have a special dorm for women traveling alone, and for women with children, but the space is not lockable. Women are scared during the night and cannot sleep; they don’t feel safe. What does it say about how much we care about women’s safety if we do not have lockable rooms, toilets, or showers, or we have rooms where there are eight people per room, in mixed groups of women and men?
Several experts working on refugee issues in Germany report that the shelter in Wilmersdorf, Berlin is relatively well-equipped for women, and has gender-segregated spaces, a wash salon run by women, and psychosocial support staff. What can be done to implement best practices to improve safety for women and children in other shelters?
Yes, some shelters have taken steps to have separate toilets and some women-only rooms. Wilmersdorf is such a well-run center. It is certainly far from the norm. The majority of shelters have nothing prepared in terms of women’s safety.
The lack of shelters’ safety measures has little to do with funding, but much to do with organization. And there is the EU reception conditions directive (Aufnahmerichtlinie) that lays out steps for welcoming refugees, so Germany is already de facto obliged by EU law to do better. I think many policymakers just do not care enough—they do not think these steps for women’s safety are necessary. It’s also about a lack of experience among those actually running the shelters—for many of them, it’s the first time they have run such shelters. And last year, men outnumbered women among the refugees served, but now the numbers are up to 50 percent women and children. Many managers simply don’t really know how to adapt shelters to that reality.
I have been pushing for, on the federal level and the state level, UNICEF to advise government bodies. It was not easy to get a UNICEF coordinator for Germany, since, in theory, UNICEF is not intended to work in developed countries. But we have a coordinator now in Berlin, who brings expertise on what is necessary to protect women and children that was learned through hard experiences in refugee camps across the world. Save the Children is also now working in many shelters, in Berlin and in the state of Brandenburg. But that’s only a handful of experts covering all of Germany.
In early February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal cabinet approved an asylum package—referred to as “Asylum Package II”—aimed at tightening asylum legislation in Germany. This passed in the German parliament in late February following heated debate from opposition leaders. Can you describe how the new policies will affect women and children?
Children’s rights are one example. Part of the issue was transposing the aforementioned EU directive on proper refugee intake into Germany’s official refugee policies—one aspect of the directive is the implementation of gender-based or age-based protection concepts in shelters. And the German government decided not to implement that EU directive.
In Germany, we also have a national child protection law that sets conditions for any organization or institution where minors are living or spending time during the day, such as basic background checks on personnel to ensure they were never convicted of sexual crimes. In the new asylum laws, in Article 44, it says that this child protection law is not applicable to shelters. In October and November of 2015, the act implementing the common European asylum system proposed an extension of Article 44. And then it got stripped out of the negotiations. All this discussion about ‘our values and our standards’—and then it was out.
There has been only a little improvement related to background checks for the people who work and help in the shelters. But this can’t replace the implementation of the EU directive. This is a huge problem, because all the child protection mechanisms we have in Germany that have been developed over the past years, all our years of experience, are not fully applicable to refugee shelters.
The Red Cross and some other organizations are doing much more voluntarily, but there is no mandate or legal obligation, which is a problem. We have already seen some cases where convicted child abusers are volunteering in shelters. That we make a distinction between a refugee child and a German child, in terms of their basic rights and protection level, is troubling.
Family reunification is another issue in the new asylum package. Refugees in Germany will have to wait two years before they can apply for their family members to join them—this will affect many minors who came unaccompanied.
Another change in the new asylum package that specifically affects women and children is that Germany lowered the level of criminal offense that causes deportation. It used to be that it would take a three-year prison conviction to be deported, but now the threshold is lower and a sexual abuse case can merit being sent back to country of origin. This makes it almost impossible for women to speak out and testify against their husbands regarding abuse. If they have children, the children are often registered with the husband. What woman is going to press charges that could result in her children being sent away? I consistently get news from shelters that women no longer want to file cases. There should have been a specific clause in the asylum package to address such cases.
How did the debate about the asylum package fit into the broader political landscape in Germany, and what are the barriers to passing legislation that protects women’s and children’s rights?
The argument goes that it is already so difficult for people on the ground that we don’t want to make them worry about children’s rights and women’s rights. The issues seem to many like a luxury, like something nice to have if we were in normal times, but we are in times of crisis and we have to sacrifice some of our standards—at least, that was the argument in floor debate in parliament in December. This is contradictory, because we’ve also had intense public debate about refugees coming to Germany and learning values like equality and women’s rights. Many of the same people who have been so strict in their calls for refugees to understand German culture and values don’t implement those same values in policy.
Looking to the future, what are your next steps in terms of legislation and advocacy for policy reforms? And how do you think the policy decisions made now will affect Germany in the long run?
On a slightly positive note, in Baden-Württemberg, my state, we have a huge refugee center that used to be a barracks for 10,000 American soldiers—now it serves around 7,000 refugees. And in that entire area, there was not a single building or apartment reserved just for women. The local aid organization, local police, and women’s groups all said that they urgently needed a women’s center, and now it’s slowly moving forward. Also, now we have a childcare room there.
In the future, I think we will look back and there will be reports about what happened in the shelters and people will say, how did that happen in Germany, and why did we not look after the women and children? And we will have to say, because, by law, we were not obliged to. We will pay quite a heavy price for it. Abused women and children will not learn what German values mean, and men perpetrating assaults will learn that they can get away with it.