Herbert Leuninger


Herbert Leuninger, PRO ASYL, Germany
TUZLA, 21 - 22 OCTOBER 1996

ECRE = European Council on Refugees and Exiles
ICVA = International Council of Voluntary Agencies


There are 320,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) in Germany. Thus, in absolute figures, Germany has received more refugees from B&H than any other country outside the former Yugoslavia. But as a proportion of its population, the number of refugees taken by Germany is less impressive than for other countries: Germany took in 4 refugees per 1000 inhabitants, while the corresponding figures are 14 per 1000 in Sweden, 10 per 1000 in Austria, and more than 4 per 1000 in Denmark. However, there is little public awareness of these figures, or of the fact that only a small number of Bosnian refugees were actually granted some form of permanent residence in Germany.

8 countries of reception (in German)

(Source: unknown)

It is true that the German public did show extraordinary sympathy for the people fleeing from B&H at the height of the war. Haunted by their own memories of World War II and its aftermath, many Germans at first welcomed Bosnians with open arms. But since the official end of the war, there has been a shift in public opinion and plans for the repatriation of the refugees are drawing growing political support.

 Survey on Bosnians’ intentions to return

Recently, ISOPLAN, an institute for development research, economic and social planning, carried out a national survey for UNHCR among nearly 1,400 Bosnian civil war refugees in Germany. A number of German NGOs (Red Cross, Caritas, and the protestant welfare agency Diakonisches Werk) participated in the project, whose aim was to obtain concrete information on whether Bosnian refugees in Germany planned to return home.

 Ethnic origin

Almost 60 per cent of the interviewed Bosnian refugees are Moslems, 34 per cent Croats and merely 2 per cent Serbs. Two thirds of the Bosnian Moslems and one third of the Bosnian-Croat refugees come form Serb-controlled areas of the country. Two thirds of the refugees declared that they themselves were victims of expulsion.

 Residence status

Most of the refugees are in Germany without any legal basis. They have, however, been tolerated - because of a ban on deportations to B&H. Ever since this ban was issued by the Federal Government and the governments of the 16 German Länder for the first time on 22 May 1992, it has had to be renewed every six months. The last deportation ban expired on 30 September (The development after this date is addressed later in this article).

No uniform legal status existed for the Bosnian refugees. (A provision introduced into the German Aliens Act in 1993 provides for a status of war and civil war refugees. But the provision has not been implemented owing to a dispute about how to cover the costs of assistance to its beneficiaries.)

The Länder maintain that they are unable to cover all the related costs of housing and social assistance without the help of the Federal Government.

The absence of a single legal status seriously affects the lives of this group of refugees. As a rule, holders of a "toleration permit" are not allowed to travel freely within the federal territory. Bosnians travelling abroad - for example when visiting family members in other countries of refuge - can be denied re-entry to Germany. The only recent exception to this rule is the right to visits to Bosnia for the purpose of obtaining information on conditions which might make it possible to return. Bosnian "non-status" refugees are not eligible for family reunification in Germany.

Only a minority of the Bosnian refugees in Germany are holders of a renewable residence permit and therefore have a legal residence status. This group consists mainly of especially vulnerable refugees, such as former inmates of detention camps or traumatised women and children, who have been admitted to the Federal Republic of Germany under special humanitarian quotas.

Ten per cent of the Bosnian refugees in Germany have maintained their application for asylum. Decision-making in Bosnian cases had been suspended since mid-1993 owing to what was seen as an unclear situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In 1995, the acceptance rate for Bosnian asylum applications in 1995 was 0.4 per cent.

permanent residence in 8 countries (in German)

(Source: unknown)

A ruling of the Federal Administrative Court in Berlin highlights Germany’s reluctance to grant asylum to Bosnians. The Court ruled in August that Bosnian Moslem refugees had no right to political asylum in Germany. The judges found that although the refugees might be victimised in Serb-held areas, they were not threatened with persecution in the whole of B&H. Overturning a decision by a lower court to grant asylum to three Bosnian families, the Federal Administrative Court said they could not claim asylum because they could flee within their own country if they were persecuted. "Anyone who can receive protection from political persecution from his own state does not need asylum in Germany," it said in a statement. The court accepted that the applicant families were liable to be persecuted in their home area in northern Bosnia, which was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in 1992, but added that other parts of Bosnia were free from persecution.

UNHCR’s regional Office in Bonn strongly criticised the ruling for introducing a very questionable construction into the framework of international law. The UNHCR deemed the ruling a step backward in the context of the EU push for harmonised asylum practice. According to the office, the Bosnian refugees in question would have been granted asylum under the Geneva Refugee Convention in a great number of European states.

Many Bosnians dependant on private sponsors

Around 50,000 Bosnian refugees (15%) came to Germany thanks to sponsorships provided by relatives, friends, non-governmental organisations, churches and other community groups. In these cases the sponsors provided binding written guarantees that they would cover all costs related to the refugees’ stay in Germany. In many cases this created considerable financial problems for the sponsor, particularly in those Länder where such an undertaking must also include the costs of medical care.


Most of the refugees are not able to be self-sufficient in Germany, owing to difficulties in finding employment. According to the survey, about 75 per cent are unemployed. Although they are not barred from employment, they may only be hired after an assessment of the labour market by the labour office has certified that no German citizen or national of a member state of the European Union or of a privileged third country is available for the job in question. We may assume that, consequently, many refugees try to work illegally.


Bosnian refugee children attend school, but those young people who are no longer of compulsory school age have problems finding gainful employment. For holders of a toleration permit it is seldom possible to start an apprenticeship or enrol in a vocational training programme or start to study at university. Other training courses are rarely available to them. Their lack of prospects for the future runs the risk of generating serious social problems and is of great concern to the agencies working with them. In principle, social and psychological counselling is now available to the refugees, but often not to the extent required. Many suffer from serious trauma or depression as a result of their war experiences. They urgently need professional help to come to terms with their past and to face the future.

Special social benefits, such as children’s allowances or inclusion of family members in public health insurance schemes, are only exceptionally granted to refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina.


Nearly two thirds of the refugees are still living in collective accommodation. Only 21 per cent have their own flats. Nine per cent are staying together with friends or relatives. Group accommodation, such as in former army barracks or in prefabricated housing creates many difficulties. Although such housing was originally seen as a temporary emergency measure, many refugees have been living in these facilities for several years now.

 Return intentions

Only one in four refugees was prepared to return home voluntarily at the time of the survey. Just as many were still undecided. And nearly 45 per cent opposed return. That may have changed in the meantime. But there is no further information available. There are two objective indications regarding the willingness to return: Older refugees and persons owning property in B&H have a more open attitude towards repatriation. The three principal pre-requirements for return as seen by the refugees are peace, respect for human rights, and democracy and rule of law. These main requirements are followed by refugees’ assessment of the prospects for a solid economic situation and reconstruction programmes.

People willing to return in principle regarded the availability of housing as the most important pre-requisite, followed by guaranteed non-discrimination and security. Employment and a return to pre-war standards of living were also of importance.


The big welfare organisations are heavily involved in counselling and assisting the Bosnian refugees. Together with UNHCR and co-ordinated by their common information and documentation centre, ZDWF, they launched an information campaign with updated leaflets on the rights, the preconditions on voluntary return, possible appeals against deportation orders and financial support for returning refugees. Advice and help is also being provided by many individuals, groups, church communities and lawyers.

Another very important source of assistance is often underestimated: the self-organisation of the Bosnians in Germany. Thanks to the human rights organisation, Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker ("Society for Threatened People"), the existing Bosnian associations were able to found the "European Forum for Bosnia- Hercegovina" in February 1994 with 500 participants from Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Austria and Italy. About 70 Bosnian associations form Germany are gathering under this umbrella. The Forum tries to cooperate with many Bosnian associations of Central Europe. By joint efforts they are promoting a multi-cultural and multi-faith country.

 Repatriation policy

As mentioned above, the German Länder decided in September 1996 to begin the gradual repatriation of the Bosnian refugees starting from 1 October. Several Länder governments, such as Berlin, Bremen, Baden-Württemberg, Saxony and Bavaria, said they would start the repatriation programme immediately. According to their plans, the first voluntary departures should take place at once and should be followed by the first deportations in October. But heeding refugee agencies’ advice, others, such as North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse and Lower Saxony, said they would wait until the spring and warmer weather before forcing anyone to go.

The Berlin authorities started telling Bosnian refugees they were no longer welcome in Germany and that they had four weeks to leave the country. A spokeswoman for Berlin’s Interior Ministry said that 1,500 unmarried people and childless couples, as well as 350 refugees who had arrived after the Dayton peace accord was signed in December, had to leave by the end of October.

 UNHCR criticism

The UNHCR in Geneva criticised what it called a "unilateral decision" by Germany to begin the forced repatriation of Bosnian civil war refugees and urged the government to show flexibility in implementing its decision. A spokeswoman of the UNHCR said that neither security conditions nor the number of destroyed homes in Bosnia permitted mass returns. The agency estimated that 60 per cent of the 320,000 Bosnians in Germany are Moslems who originate from areas now under the control of the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Mrs. Judith Kumin, the UNHCR representative in Bonn, said Germany had wrongly interpreted a U.N. report on Bosnia and insisted that no areas were entirely safe for refugees’ return regardless of their ethnic origin. She urged Germany to provide more financial aid for post-war reconstruction, arguing that this was the best way of persuading refugees to return of their own accord.

Besides the welfare and human rights organisations, German commentators heaped criticism on the decision of the Länder Interior Ministers saying it was "inhumane" to begin repatriating the Bosnians when there was still so much instability in the region. On the other hand, some newspapers expressed some understanding for the financially pressed Länder. But they questioned the motives for forcing the 320,000 refugees home starting in October, just as the winter begins.

 Bavaria demonstrates its determination

Bavaria became the first German land to begin deportations of Bosnian refugees. In mid October, a 29-year-old convict was sent back to Sarajevo by plane in what was widely perceived as a symbolic action. The Bavarian Government has widely publicised its determination to return about 20,000 by next summer, beginning with persons convicted of crimes and persons between 18 and 55 years old who are receiving welfare benefits.

Germany no multi-culural society, Minister says

The ideas behind these policies of forcible repatriation have been expressed in blunt words by no less a person than Carl-Dieter Spranger, the extremely conservative Federal Minister for Economic Co-operation. In an interview, he called for the speedy repatriation of all war refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Spranger argued that "there isn’t any convincing reason for the civil war refugees to remain in Germany". This assessment was followed by three lines of argumentation:

1. "[The refugees] should return to their home country as soon as possible in order to rebuild it".

2. No subsidies should be granted to returning refugees. "We are already helping actively in various ways. But we cannot build up Bosnia", Mr Spranger said, and pointed out that the reception costs for the refugees at the time amounted to 15 billion Deutschmark. "We cannot stress any further the capacity of our population as regards the reception of foreigners".

3. "After all, we are neither a country of immigration nor a multi-cultural society".

Readmission agreements instead of voluntary return

This last argument reveals the great fear of the Federal and the Länder Governments of an "indirect" immigration which might take place, if the repatriation process is delayed too long.

The German governments are thinking in terms of international law and readmission agreements, rather than in terms of UNHCR and its repatriation programmes, based on voluntary return. These are very different - I would say, incompatible - views. With this in mind, one can understand better, why Germany does not accept the leading role of UNHCR according to the Dayton accord with its principles especially of voluntariness.

The Federal Government recently concluded a readmission agreement with B&H. Negotiations on this bilateral agreement took a rather long time, because of German reluctance to meet two main demands of the Bosnian Government: that Germany pay 3 billion Deutschmark to B&H and that Bosnian authorities should be involved in the decision on every single individual case of return. According to the German Government’s interpretation of international law, B&H cannot refuse the readmission of its own nationals, and, as a consequence, Germany could send them home, leaving it to the Bosnian Government to provide for housing, assistance and employment.

The German-Bosnian negotiations highlights the need for a swift harmonisation of the different and sometimes conflicting strategies of the German Federal Government and the Länder on the one hand, and the UNHCR on the other. But this must happen in full respect of the sense and spirit of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Otherwise the refugees in Germany will suffer from new traumatic experiences caused by constant grave uncertainty and fear of expulsion.

Refugees in Germany 1990-2000(in German)