by Aino Korvensyrjä, PhD researcher at the University of Helsinki and migration justice activist.
After weeks of speculations in Germany and The Gambia, the Federal Ministry of the Interior finally confirmed on Monday last week, answering an inquiry of the Member of the Bundestag Ulla Jelpke (DIE LINKE), that a charter deportation to the Gambia took place on November 18th. The flight carried 19 Gambian deportees from Germany and one from Norway. It was the first charter deportation from Germany since the Gambian government set a moratorium on deportations in early 2019, in response to intense protests by Gambians both at home and abroad. Since January 2020, the moratorium has been lifted in principle, under pressure by the German government and the European Union. Individual Gambians have been deported from Germany on passenger flights since then – 22 in total by the end of June – but a planned charter deportation in September, with 16 Gambians, was cancelled.
Deportation alerts by activists and NGOs constitute a further indication that Germany intends to intensify charter deportations, despite the lockdown and the high rate of Covid-19 infections in Germany. Activists have issued another deportation alert for The Gambia from Germany for December 22nd. Deportation warnings for several other countries have also been announced. On December 10th, a chartered flight brought 24 deportees from Germany to Nigeria.
In light of this scenario, analysing the economy of rumour that accompanied the flight of November 18th to The Gambia is particularly important. It prompts a questioning of what practical solidarity with people under deportation actually entails, and how the ideology of integration works to divide communities and to manufacture obedience and consent.
The economy of rumour
The initial rumours about the deportation were based on a letter by the German Embassy in Dakar, dated October 20th, 2020, one month before the planned deportation. The letter entailed a request to the Gambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambians Abroad for a landing permission of a deportation flight departing on November 18th from Frankfurt (Main), and landing on November 19th,in Banjul at 3 a.m. According to the letter, up to 25 Gambian deportees were due to be on board the flight. Attached to this document was an undated list of 22 Gambian deportees from Germany and 5 from Sweden (not Norway, as it turned out to be).
A week before the planned deportation, the document was acquired by members of the Gambian Refugee Association. Mainly based in Germany, this diaspora group of Gambians was among those mobilising the protests held in early 2019 in The Gambia that culminated in the adoption of the moratorium. Secrecy around the document triggered a debate on whether the information was reliable. The fact that Germany had just entered a second lockdown due to a remarkably high level of Covid-19 infections, increased the doubts over the feasibility of a charter deportation. No monitoring or support for the deportees was organised at the Banjul airport on the 19th and no protest ensued. As the two governments kept quiet, speculation continued.
Facebook posts around the November 22nd by members of the Gambian diaspora in Germany became the basis for the first newspaper reports in The Gambia on the November 23rd. These seemed to merely reproduce the social media posts without additional information or research.
A week after the deportation, members of the German voluntary network Gambia Helfernetz had also acquired the letter by the German Embassy in Dakar of October 20th, including the undated list of 22 “deportees” from Germany. The Gambia Helfernetz is active in Baden-Württemberg, the state where most Gambian (rejected) asylum seekers are based, helping them to overcome the high hurdles set by the German state for rejected asylum seekers to access work and training. In a newsletter they argued that the deportation had now been confirmed and that the 22 “deportees” were serious offenders, listing various crimes that they had allegedly committed, including “assault, drug charges, theft, sexual assault, rape and damage to property”. Here the newsletter cited imprecise information on criminal convictions on the undated list of the 22 individuals. Instead of criticising the deportation, the newsletter rather presented it as being in line with the existing agreement by the Baden-Württemberg state government. The agreement, concluded earlier this year between the governing parties, stipulates that in a situation of a “limited capacity to carry out deportations” there will be a “prioritisation” among Gambians under pending deportation (in Germany these persons have a so-called Duldung or toleration status). Those who are currently unemployed or who have been convicted will be deported first, while individuals currently in employment and vocational training (Ausbildung) may be deported later, if enforcement capacities allow.
Without further fact-checking, an article based on this newsletter was published in a Gambian newspaper, quoting long parts of it, with and without quotation marks. With the title “Germany says 20 deportees are ‘convicts’” it turned the narrative presented in the voluntary network newsletter, of the “22 deportees” as “serious criminals”, into a statement of the German authorities.
The double face of integration
Such statements play into the official ideology of integration. As a key frame for German migration control for decades, the state-managed integration reconciles seemingly opposing interests; on the one hand, profiting from precarious migrant labour, and on the other, maintaining the power to deport and to criminalise migration. Integration also responds, by selective inclusion and exclusion, to migrant struggles to access societal resources. Often, permitting certain groups into the labour market under precarious conditions is presented as a form of generosity, whilst at the same time, used as a legitimation for the deportations of others.
Due to its ambiguous nature, the Duldung status, a curiosity of German immigration law, merges the two-faced reasoning of integration. Persons with an enforceable deportation order, such as rejected asylum seekers, are further “tolerated” in Germany with a short term, renewable and administrative suspension of their deportation. The Duldung is not a residence permit, and in the legal sense their stay remains unlawful, even if it is often exempted from criminal sanctions. The precarious access to the labour market of persons with a Duldung is subject to continuous political contestation, including shifting federal and state level policies, diverging local practices of immigration authorities, and personal, collective and locally supported struggles of tolerated migrants. The most common reason to refuse a work permit is an unclear identity, or a lack of travel documents. For tolerated persons, the latter is however a vital protection against deportation, as after all, their deportation order remains enforceable and submitting one’s passport to the authorities entails an acute risk.
The aforementioned agreement in Baden-Württemberg between the governing parties exemplifies the dynamics of integration. It is surely motivated by good intentions, firstly of the employers in urgent need of a work force and secondly of volunteers or “helpers” struggling to facilitate the Gambians’ entry into the labour market, by accessing a work permit – particularly for training – and thereby a more dignified living. And who would not prefer working legally to languishing in an isolation camp under a work ban, with the only option of working there for 80 cents per hour, or to being forced to make a living by illegalised means?
Beyond these practical advantages, we should not ignore what is happening here: The agreement underlines the ambiguity of the Duldung, as the state shows its willingness to guarantee the legal exploitation of the labour of formally illegalised persons. Their legal employment and training in companies is to be ensured at least as long as the “limited capacity to carry out deportations“ prevails. Their labour is “tolerated”, usually in branches and tasks in which many Germans are not willing to work and which suffer from a so-called Fachkräftemangel (lack of skilled workers). During vocational training, these people work in companies, while receiving a trainee remuneration much below the German minimum wage.
Instead of a regularisation which would grant these persons a basic security equal to that of most other workers in Germany, they are contained in a situation of protracted “illegality” and deportability: The Duldung, or its newer variants, the Ausbildungsduldung, the Beschäftigungsduldung. The agreement reminds tolerated migrants that if they lose their job, or enter into any conflict with the criminal law, they can quickly land on the deportation list. This disciplining effect helps to produce docile workers. The fear factor should not be underestimated, as the state explicitly retains the possibility to deport them. Surely, regarding West Africa, the “capacity to carry out deportations“ will most likely remain “limited”. This in turn is largely due to the persistent resistance and public protest by migrants and their families and communities at home.
Criminality as the limit of solidarity?
Now what about the “serious offenders” among the deportees? It is important to understand that the definition of “criminality” lies in the hands of the state and can be flexibly used to legitimate deportations and other state violence. Since German authorities stepped up their deportation efforts in 2016, the argument of deporting “offenders” first has been a key legitimation for deportations, typically used by state Ministries of the Interior.
NGOs and activists have shown that interpretations of criminality and of the alleged prioritisation of “criminals” for deportation vary considerably across German states. It is important to correct misleading rhetorics and to find out, in which kind situations people are most vulnerable to deportation. Yet, shifting the focus on whether given deportees were criminals or not, is an error as it merely reproduces the state power to define migrant criminality as an exclusion from integration.
To realise how politicised and racialised the definition of migrant criminality is in Germany, particularly that of asylum seekers, it suffices to reflect on the numerous moral panics over Black and Brown men since New Years Eve of 2015/16 in Cologne. The panics following the large-scale, deportation-related police raids targeting West African communities in the asylum camps in Ellwangen (Baden-Württemberg), Donauwörth (Bavaria) and many other places in 2018 are particularly pertinent here. In a campaign by German authorities to increase and legitimate Dublin deportations in 2018, Black communities in the raided camps were labelled as “aggressive”, “violent” and “criminal”, and many were convicted for “resistance against the police”, “assault” and “breach of public peace”. These communities’ own analyses, including that of the Gambian community in Donauwörth, and of the mixed West African community in Ellwangen, deconstructed the narrative of Black “criminality“ and showed how it is instrumentalised in the context of migration control.
Further, in the state of Bavaria, known for its harsh policies on (rejected) asylum seekers, the police law, amended by a law called the Bavarian Integration Law in 2016, defines all asylum accommodations as “criminal hotspots”. Their inhabitants are thus framed as potential criminals by proxy, which adds another layer on this criminalisation of migration.
Certainly, not all migrant convicts are mere victims of criminalisation. There are also individuals who commit indefensible violent acts against others. Deportation will, however, not undo any of the harm that has been caused, but rather creates additional harms while it reproduces citizenship through violent exclusion.
Importantly, focusing energies on sorting out “bad apples” blinds us to how the spectacle of criminality works: Persons and groups labelled as “criminals” are turned into warning examples, from whom “we” should distance ourselves from – either as migrants, activists, citizens or volunteers. The deportation of these persons is then framed as legitimate. The spectacle of criminality prevents solidarity with the victims of deportation and constrains our ability to mobilise against future deportations. This happened after the violent raids of asylum camps in 2018 and it happened again in the deportation rumours concerning the flight of November 18th to the Gambia.
Putting criminality in the spotlight also inhibits a critical understanding of the dialectics of “good” and “bad” migrants, in other words, of how the structural racism of the immigration law works. While everybody is urged to identify with the “good” migrants, this is no guarantee to a legal stay, rights at work or protection against deportation, as the agreement over “prioritising” some deportees over others in Baden-Württemberg shows. Instead of such a priority order set by the state, solidarity with precarised and illegalised migrants starts at the opposite end: in prioritising people’s own, their communities’ and their families’ need for security, and other essentials of a good life.
Besides a new, planned deportation to the Gambia on December 22nd, many other charter deportations from Germany to different countries have just been conducted or announced including Afghanistan and Iraq on December 16th. The practical end of the Gambian deportation moratorium seems to be situated in the context of a general restart of large-scale deportations after a pause due to pandemic restrictions. Yet, a lowering of infection rates in Germany and many other countries is not yet in sight, making this deportation plan even more questionable.
Sharing accurate information as early and as broadly as possible and organising independent monitoring and support quickly in case of deportation rumours are important ways to protect people from deportation. Confronting state authorities – in sending and receiving countries – about the handling of specific deportations and protesting against (planned) deportations are other avenues of action. It will also be important to continue to challenge the European and German policies that exert increasing leverage on governments in West Africa and elsewhere to accept massive deportations of their citizens. I have stressed here that we also need to question the double-faced policies of integration in Germany and related attempts to legitimise deportations. Migrant struggles continuously remind us that we cannot afford to leave it up to state authorities to decide whom to integrate, and whom to criminalise for their attempts to access common resources such as work, health care and schooling. It remains vital to question the connection between state violence and access to societal resources – the integration-deportation nexus.
Protest of the Gambian community in Stuttgart (Baden-Württemberg) on 23rd December, 2017,
against deportations to The Gambia, the EU-Gambia readmission agreement and for the right
to work and do vocational training.
Protest of the Gambian community in Donauwörth (Bavaria) on the 29th March, 2018, for the
release of the 30 members of the community taken to custody in the police raid of
14th March, 2018.
Cover Picture: Protest of the Gambian community in Stuttgart (Baden-Württemberg) on 23rd December, 2017, against deportations to The Gambia, the EU-Gambia readmission agreement and for the right to work and do vocational training.
*The author thanks Rex Osa and David Jassey, as well as Judith Altrogge for earlier discussions on the subject.