German Reunification @30: Refugees and Asylum

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Germany, pre- and post-reunification, has been the direct recipient of masses of refugees and political asylum seekers. When the Wall stood, some 80 were shot dead within the view of West Berliners. Attitudes and institutions are shaped by the Germans’ unique experiences.

This is Part III of a four-part series from an interview with Dieter Lamlé, the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany to Hong Kong and Macau, on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of German Reunification.

Part I: German Reunification @30: “Never stop believing in the impossible” here.

Part II: German Reunification @30: Work In Progress here.

Part IV: German Reunification @30: Indo-Pacific Strategy here.

The aftermath of World War II saw defeated Germany divided by occupying powers. West Berlin was the flashpoint of that division. First it was politically isolated – and then literally separated by a Wall constructed by the Soviet Union controlled East German government. 80 people are known to have been shot trying to escape from East to West Berlin. 

Since then, Germany has more often than not led the discussion surrounding human rights issues in Europe. They have also constructed institutions to protect the machinery of determining who is a legitimate asylum seeker from the government, which may come under pressure from foreign powers, local interests or popular opinion. 

Dieter Lamlé, the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany to Hong Kong and Macau, explains some of the unique characteristics of the German system.

We have an office for migration and refugees, which is not a government authority. And it is completely independent of the government. Completely independent.

dieter lamlé

Asylum stands alone

“We have a system concerning asylum and of course, Hong Kong has been playing a role in this two years ago. We have an office for migration and refugees, which is not a government authority.

“It is completely independent of the government. Completely independent.”

“The reason for this is very simple, Asylum is a very, very high – very very high! – good in Germany. Protected, of course, by the constitution. That is why governments should not intervene!”

As of May 2019, three Hong Kongers had sought refugee or asylum status in Germany. Ray Wong and Alan Li of Hong Kong Indigenous disappeared from public view for some years, only to reappear in Germany. They were being sought on charges related to the 2016 Mong Kok riots. The Consulate in Hong Kong was not informed.

Herr Dieter Lamlé explains, “That’s why we [at the Consulate here] were not informed about the cases of Hong Kong. We did not know. We were not asked.”

“This division is strict. Also, my Ministry says we do not interfere in their work. It’s a case-by-case decision… That’s also why we cannot say all the citizens of one country will get asylum in Germany. This would not be true, because it’s case-by-case… But it’s not the government who can say we will let everybody in – for asylum. Refugees are a little bit difficult.”


Lamlé shares that], Chancellor Merkel, however, appeared to open the doors wide to Syrian refugees fleeing a brutal civil war in 2015, causing consternation among some Germans and many European governments.

“There you had, in 2015, Angela Merkel (in a very emotional moment), [who] said every refugee can come to Germany. Of course, this was a little bit complicated within the European framework because we didn’t consult them. But it was a minute of emotions from Ms Merkel, where she really saw this and said [to paraphrase the sentiment], ‘Come on! We are strong enough! We can help them. We’ll take them.’”

“What she missed then, and then corrected 2 or 3 days later was to say we can’t take everybody. This is also so clear, that we cannot afford to take everybody but this clarification was probably a little bit missing [and] still today we have a situation in Europe concerning refugees. We are fighting for a unified refugee policy because at the moment it is ‘port of entry’ and this must be changed. And there must be burden-sharing.”

“Because of what we just saw in Moria should not happen in Europe.”  Moira is a huge refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos that suffered a fire on September 8th and 9th this year that left 13,000 refugees homeless.

That’s why we were not informed about the cases of Hong Kong. We did not know. We were not asked.

dieter lamlé

Hard power, soft power and human rights

Germany’s place in the world has been tempered by its World War II history and the realities that history imposed, but this is changing as that legacy fades and becomes one replaced by a nation with a strong focus on human rights.

Herr Lamlé examines the record, “If you look at West Germany, for a long time we were not allowed to have a strong military. And politically, after the Second World War, it took some time to play a role. So you concentrate on so-called soft policies, automatically. Otherwise, you feel you are not so important.”

“We still think it is better to advocate on human rights. We do not like the loudspeaker policy. We do silent diplomacy which is our success model. And it works, it also works in China. Other countries do it differently.”

But he knows not everyone is satisfied with Germany’s softly-softly approach. 

There are a lot of countries asking us ‘You should take more responsibility. Not in China, but by sending troops to crisis zones, where Germany is always very reluctant. We sent no troops to Iraq…People are telling us ‘You should take more responsibility.’ And not just moral responsibility, but hard facts. That means money, that means arms.  Be more influential. Use your power. And we are still…a little reluctant. We are discussing a lot in Germany: ‘Is this a role we should take? Should we really be dominant somewhere, as other countries are asking you?’”

Herr Lamlé’s position is clear.

“In my opinion, we should not. But…it is very often, and specifically in the past 5 to 10 years, that people say, ‘Germany, please be more influential in the United Nations, in NATO, in Europe, in the OECD, and international forums like the G7’… In my opinion, we are using our political power in a correct way. Not too much and not too little – and this is the way it should be.”

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