Learning from German Gender and Immigration Policy Missteps
By Abraham Lamptey | April 3, 2018
In his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump announced major changes to U.S. immigration and refugee policy. Key among his proposals is tightening family reunification policies, which will directly influence gender inequity. Not only does our own history provide trenchant examples, but other countries’ policies and their implications can inform such changes. On this score, Germany, though its refugee policy is far more generous, is particularly helpful in considering the gender implications of immigration reform- a “what not to do,” as it were.
In the current global refugee crisis, more than a million refuge seekers have arrived in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy has brought them from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and many more are waiting to be granted asylum. German law recognizes gender persecution as basis for refugee status, yet statistics from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, reveal that women constitute just a third of the pool of potential refugees and asylees.
Women refugees viewed as less credible
There are several key reasons behind the gender disproportion in German refugees. First, even when women flee the same political and religious persecution as men, they often fail to meet the German government’s standard of proof. Research on such refugees has shown that women face more difficulty obtaining German asylum status because their applications are considered less credible when based on religious, political, and gender-based persecution or violence including clitoridectomy (“female circumcision”), rape, sexual assault/harassment, and forced marriage.
The German Asylum Procedure Act recognizes such sexual and psychological or emotional violence as grounds for asylum, yet women may be unwilling to recount the details of their traumatic pasts, especially to male immigration officers.
So, when female interviewers and interpreters are absent, female asylum-seekers are largely unwilling to tell their stories and their applications are rejected. The U.S., too, recognizes gender-specific claims, and is seeing historically low admittance rates for women refugees under the Trump administration. It is widely thought that this is due to the difficulty women face in proving gendered claims. (see also).
Trailing wives and children locked out
A second reason for the gender disparity in German admittances is its 2016 family reunification policy, the Act on Processes in Family Matters and in Matters of Voluntary Jurisdiction. Under this law, both husbands and wives must be present on German soil by the time this protected status is granted . This means that wives who arrive after their husband’s receipt of legal refugee status face tougher conditions and the possibility of denial, even though men frequently “blaze the trail”- by testing new territories before putting their families through often dangerous travels. German policy, that is, defeats the logic of family reunion.
Now there is a backlog of about 230,000 people, mostly women, who have been “locked out” at German borders. Lacking the protection of both the head of family and heads of state, women and children are increasingly vulnerable among refugee populations. This is, of course, true at U.S. borders, as well. President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order reduced the refugee admission ceiling to 45,000, with the potential that “trailing” wives and children will be left out as trail-blazing husbands and fathers are resettled.
Women forced to wait
Trailing wives whose husbands have already been granted asylum have experienced protracted stays in German reception centers, again because of the burden of proof. In this case, however, the women must provide documentation to show a marriage with the spouse now in Germany existed in their home country.
Should marriage documents be lost or in the case of customary marriages (which generate no official records), women are in the difficult situation of demonstrating their relationships to gain refugee status under family reunification. In the meantime, they are forced to wait in reception.
As the reception centers become overcrowded, they see poor sanitary conditions, insufficient food supplies, sexual assault, and health care concerns relating to the breakout and spread of disease. Most women refugees are unaware of their rights in the event of sexual harassment or violence, and they rarely report these incidents. International law and individual countries’ policies, including the 1951 Geneva Convention, are meant to protect such women, but they continue to face rape by male asylum seekers and male asylum officials. Even when offenders are reported, they are rarely prosecuted.
Lessons for the United States
The (un)intended consequences of Germany’s family reunification policy suggest that tightened restrictions (for example, President Trump’s intended reduction of “chain migration”- the sponsorship of family members by immigrants and refugees to the U.S.- by 40%) can compromise gender balance and amplify bias.
Instead, the U.S. should treat family reunion for those displaced by violence and persecution with both utmost urgency and lowered rigidity if it is to smooth refugees’ transition and safety.
The U.S.’s new resettlement program’s restriction to spouses and children (excluding parents, grandparents, and siblings) for family reunification through stringent, bureaucratic vetting mechanisms defeats the value of family unity. (see also). It also privileges families who apply for resettlement together over those who seek asylum through sponsorship at different times.
Closer attention must also be paid to asylum procedures in order to safeguard women who have already experienced oppression and trauma from undergoing more of each as they seek safe haven (see also).
The refugee resettlement program will better cater to the needs of women refugees and asylum seekers by engaging female personnel in the admission and relocation processes (so as to allow women to discuss the circumstances of their migration with other women) and by implementing procedures such as sex-segregated housing (which would help mitigate vulnerable conditions for females).
In so doing, the success rates of women applicants could be improved and their protracted stay in reception centers could be reduced, if not avoided altogether.
If we are to ensure gender equity and respect family values, a favorable review of existing policies must recognize the temporal reality of family relocation and protect women refugees’ dignity in gender-specific claims of asylum.