The German far right wants to ‘return’ migrants

Millions of Muslim migrants living in Germany have been thrown into anxious uncertainty by a proposal to ‘remigrate’ people who are deemed to have failed to integrate

A crowd of people assembled in front of the Bundestag building in Berlin. People use their phones for light in the evening.
Around 350,000 Berliners demonstrated against the deportation proposals of the AfD outside the Bundestag building on 21 January, 2024. Photo by Hami Roshan/Middle East Images via AFP

In November 2023, a secret meeting was held in a country hotel near Potsdam. The organisers were far-right activists, the topic was “remigration” and the gathering was attended by community leaders, serving politicians (including two members of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU)), and journalists with the investigative news site Correctiv. On January 10, Correctiv published what was discussed – a policy of “remigrating” immigrants who are deemed to have failed to assimilate with the German population. One Austrian activist, Martin Sellner, suggested this could even be applied to German citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of Germans took to the streets in cities across the country in protest. In Düsseldorf, police reported crowds of as many as 100,000. In Hamburg, organisers were forced to end their rally early because it grew too large. Protesters chanted “‘Nie wieder’ ist jetzt” (‘Never again’ is now), echoing the post-WWII slogan vowing never to let a Holocaust happen again.

When Suleman Malik, a naturalised German citizen and Muslim who moved from Pakistan 23 years ago, heard about the Potsdam meeting, he was instantly reminded of the “One Day Conference” of 1942 when the Nazis gathered to discuss and coordinate a “Final Solution” for Germany’s Jewish population. “For me it is clear that, if they come to power again, exactly this will happen [to Muslims],” he said.

The migrant Muslim population is among the fastest-growing in Germany. In 2019, around 5.6 million Muslims with a migrant background lived in Germany, just under 7% of the population. While Muslims weren’t explicitly mentioned in Correctiv’s report of the “remigration” meeting, according to the dog whistle rhetoric of the German right wing, it is Muslim migrants that are least able to integrate and pose the greatest threat to German culture. The Islamophobic messaging may not have been explicit, but it was clear. 

Malik is the deputy mayor of his local district in Erfurt, a city in Thuringia. Despite his deep engagement with German society, he is worried about his future status. He still has faith that his constitutional rights as a German citizen will protect his right to remain, but is fearful of what could happen if a far-right political party were to form a government. 

This fear is not baseless. Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), a far-right party promoting hardline anti-Islam and anti-immigration policies, achieved a record 23% of support in a December poll, making it the second most popular party across the country. Three of its regional branches – in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Malik’s own Thuringia – have been designated as “extremist” organisations by the German government. 

Malik believes many Germans who support the AfD and other far-right movements have developed a deep misunderstanding of Islam, associating the religion with terrorism or the mistreatment of women. “I feel, as a Muslim, like I’m being led through the circus by a nose ring,” he said, adding that many Germans use Muslims as scapegoats for a wide range of problems in society.

This hostility has deepened significantly since the 7 October Hamas attacks in Israel, and the Israeli military’s retaliation in Gaza in which more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed. The government-sponsored anti-Islamophobia organisation CLAIM reports that Islamophobic incidents across Germany have doubled since the attacks; Malik feels he is treated as though he were responsible simply because he is Muslim. The atmosphere in Germany now reminds him of the period shortly after 9/11, when he had just arrived in Germany from Pakistan. “[Then] suddenly I was a terrorist,” he said. “Now, the situation is the same.”  

Mathias Rohe, founding director at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen’s Research Centre for Islam and Law in Europe, hopes the public mood is shifting, pointing to the scale of demonstrations against the Potsdam meeting. “Many people in Germany have come to the conclusion that we have to stand together to protect those who are directly targeted by these people, that we have to defend democracy, that we have to defend the rule of law, and that we have to defend minorities,” he said. “There are the first signs of hope.”

Since the news broke, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz has summoned his ministers to address the crisis of the far right. A ban on the AfD is being debated; it is possible under the German constitution if a party is found to undermine “the free democratic basic order”. Rohe is largely in favour of the ban, which he feels would deliver a powerful statement to the German public that their government is willing to take any step necessary to prevent rightwing ideologies from gaining power. “The mere fact that these things are seriously discussed in public might lead many Muslims to the conviction that they [the government] are now taking the dangers of this party [AfD] seriously,” he said.

Abdassamad el Yazidi, secretary general at the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, is not reassured. He acknowledges the public and widespread opposition to rightwing extremism but argues that the German government has consistently failed to show a willingness to protect German Muslims. He wants to see action taken. 

In the wake of the mass shooting in Hanau in February 2020, in which a gunman killed nine people he targeted according to ethnicity, former chancellor Angela Merkel commissioned an investigation into Islamophobia in Germany, to which Rohe contributed. The investigation report, published in June 2023, revealed that one in every two people in Germany agreed with Islamophobic statements. It recommended the appointment of a permanent commissioner against Islamophobia, which, as El Yazidi points out, has not yet been done. “And that is why, although Muslims have lived here for generations, they nevertheless feel they are treated like second-class citizens,” he said.

As news of the “remigration” meeting spread, the Central Council for Muslims has tried to reassure its members by educating them in their government’s constitutional responsibility to protect their rights as citizens. “What is happening here is not Germany,” El Yazidi said. “We must work together with our neighbours, with our friends, to combat the fact that people here have to be afraid because of their faith, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, or anything else. We will not allow our belonging to our country to be taken away from us.”

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