OPINION: Germany is failing its Afghan helpers – out of fear of repeat of 2015 refugee crisis

Haunted by the spectre of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, the German government is being disastrously slow in fulfilling its duty to Afghans who worked with it over the past 20 years, argues Jörg Luyken.

OPINION: Germany is failing its Afghan helpers - out of fear of repeat of 2015 refugee crisis
Soldiers controlling evacuees at Kabul airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr | Stfw Schueller

Whatever your opinion is regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan few people can doubt that the countries involved, of which Germany was one, have a moral obligation to the local staff who helped them in their attempts to build a democracy there over the past two decades.

It is no secret that the Taliban have targeted these people as “collaborators” and threatened to kill them for what they call their “betrayal of Islam”.

But Germany, a country that has built a reputation for itself in recent years as a bastion of humanitarianism, has for months put up bureaucratic roadblocks to make the process of escaping the country as difficult as possible.

Alone among the NATO members, Germany imposed a time limit on who it was prepared to help. Initially only Afghans who had worked with the German army, the development ministry, or foreign ministry over the past two years were entitled to receive a visa to travel to Germany.

Anyone who worked with the Bundeswehr as a translator or with the development ministry as a facilitator in 2018 or earlier was told that they didn’t qualify for protection. This cut-off date is absurdly arbitrary – it is clear that the Taliban would make no such distinction when deciding whether someone was a collaborator or not. They remember very well that they were removed from power in 2001 and not in 2018.

Only this Tuesday due to a public outcry did the foreign and development ministries confirm that people who’d worked for them from 2013 onwards would be flown out. (The defence ministry relaxed its rules a few weeks ago.)

But with the last airlift out of Taliban likely to take place on Friday, the race is now on for these people, who are hiding in terror from the Taliban, to make it to Kabul airport and escape.

‘Botched rescue’

According to Angela Merkel, some 4,600 people have so far been airlifted out of the country, although it is unclear how many of these are locals given that the evacuees come from 45 different countries. But the lucky few Afghans who have made it out have been put through far more trauma than was necessary.

When the Bundeswehr left its base at Mazar-a-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan ahead of schedule at the beginning of July it didn’t take its local staff with it. These people had to wait for their visas to be processed before arranging their own exit from the country.

Within weeks though Mazar-a-Sharif had fallen to the Taliban and local staff were forced to flee to Kabul were they were hidden in safe houses organized by a charity run by German soldiers called the Patenschaftsnetzwerk Afghanische Ortskräfte.

This Tuesday, the charity’s head, Marcus Grotian, complained that the German government had botched the rescue effort so badly that it was culpable of the crime of unterlassene Hilfeleistung (denial of assistance).

Gortian recounted how the Afghans whom his team were protecting were directed by German embassy to the UN run International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was supposed to sort out visas for them. The only problem: the IOM office in Kabul hadn’t been opened yet and would only reply by email.

Eventually the situation became so dangerous that the Patenschaftsnetzwerk Afghanische Ortskräfte had to tell the people at the safe houses to find cover elsewhere: the Taliban were getting too close.

Seething with anger, Grotian recounted how he had appealed to Chancellor Angela Merkel on four separate occasions to directly intervene, but was ignored each time.

“Many of us soldiers are experiencing trauma for a second time,” Grotian said. “But it is not the Taliban that is causing it, it is the actions of our own government.”

In another scandal, der Spiegel has reported that the Development Ministry has been offering local staff a “cash bonus” as an incentive for staying behind. One Afghan employee of the ministry described the offer as “devastating”, saying that “we don’t want money, we want security.”

Fearing a ‘pull effect’

Why, you might ask, is Germany, which is famous for its efforts to save Syrian refugees during the crisis of 2015, now so reluctant to help people whose lives are in direct danger because of their work supporting German diplomats and development workers?

Well, the shadow of 2015 still looms large over German politics.

In the autumn of that year Merkel’s government had only intended to offer refuge to a few thousand Syrians who were stranded in Hungary, where the far-right government wanted to have nothing to do with them.

But taking in those refugees set off a chain of events that the German government felt helpless to put a stop to. As word spread back through refugee routes from Syria, through Turkey and into Greece that Germany was taking in refugees, one of the largest movements of people in recent European history took place, with thousands more people arriving at the southern border every day.


While most of these people were war refugees, economic migrants also saw an opportunity to make use of the open border. Meanwhile Islamist groups saw a chance to move their fighters into western Europe.

The German government stopped imposing European rules on refugee intake – the so-called Dublin regulations – and in practise it stopped evaluating the individual cases of asylum seekers coming from Syria.

In hindsight, this loss of control of the country’s borders and the decision to weaken rules on asylum recognition were the main catalyst for one the the most regrettable developments in post-war history: the fact that a far-right party now sits in the Bundestag.

Before the last federal election in 2017 the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) painted doom-laden scenarios of up to 8 million Syrians migrating to Germany. That this would ever come true was highly improbable, but the often chaotic events of the previous two years had made it seem at least plausible to many Germans.

Senior members of the German government are clearly terrified of a repeat of that scenario. Development Minister Gerd Müller warned Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in June against any attempts to widen Germany’s strict rules on which Afghans are to be given visas. 

“It should also be borne in mind that such a decision could have an enormous pull effect beyond the defined group,” he wrote, in clear reference to the events of 2015.

This stance is one of moral cowardice though. The Geneva Convention on Refugees specifically protects people who face persecution due to their political opinions. Surely there is no more clear cut case of this than the local staff who helped Germany in Afghanistan?

What happens next for Afghan employees of the German government is far from certain. Those who don’t make it onto planes will likely have to make a much more dangerous journey across land to the northern borders with Uzbekistan.

Individual soldiers whose lives they protected will try and help them. How much effort the German government puts into saving them remains to be seen.

Jörg Luyken is the creator of The German Review. You can sign up to his bi-weekly newsletter on German current affairs here.

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Covid health pass: What can Germany learn from France?

Germany has its own version of a Covid health pass - the 3G rules. But does it actually do the job? The Local editor Rachel Loxton found Germany could learn lessons from its neighbour after a recent trip to Paris.

Covid health pass: What can Germany learn from France?
A sign outside a Munich restaurant informs guests that entry is only permitted for vaccinated, recovered or people with negative tests. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

While surveying the terrace for a table in a Paris bar on a sunny Friday afternoon, an employee stopped us. 

“Pass sanitaire?” he said a few times before I understood what was going on. “Oh, the Covid health pass,” I said as I fished out my phone to present the EU digital certificate I received in Germany. After it was scanned, we were free to find a table in the sun. 

Despite Germany having its own version of the ‘pass sanitaire’ – the 3G rules that mean entry to indoor spaces is only allowed if you can show proof of vaccination (geimpft), recovery from Covid (genesen) or a negative test (getestet) – I get the impression that the Covid health passport culture is different to that of France. 

In Berlin, for instance, I have dined indoors a few times recently, visited an exhibition and a bar – and not once been asked for proof of vaccination, recovery or test.

“Here in Paris most places ask for the pass, and it’s surprising how quickly it has become normal,” The Local France editor Emma Pearson tells me.

“It takes a second just to have your phone scanned by a waiter or security guard and personally it makes me feel a lot more relaxed about socialising.”

Emma says readers of The Local suggest that the pass is asked for less often in smaller places like village bars, but there doesn’t seem to have been “any type of widespread refusal of businesses to enforce it”.

“So far I have not seen anyone protesting when being asked to show the pass, and I’ve only witnessed a couple of tourists who were confused about the system, everyone else seem to have made it a habit pretty quickly,” she adds. 

OPINION: Majority of French have accepted the health passport with little more than a shrug

During my weekend in Paris I also had my vaccine certificate scanned when going to a museum and eating out.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex has his health pass checked as he arrives to take part in a three-day-gathering of French ruling liberal party La Republique on September 6th, 2021. Photo: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

That’s not to say that proof is never asked for in Germany. In gyms, for instance, I’ve heard they always ask for one of the Gs before you’re allowed inside to sweat with strangers (thankfully). Events and places where ticketing is needed at the door like cinemas, are on the whole more strictly enforcing the rules.

My EU vaccination certificate has also been checked before travelling by plane from Berlin. 

Yet it’s clearly very patchy. According to a survey released earlier this week by the opinion research institute Civey for Business Insider, 40 percent of respondents said the 3G or 2G (only for vaccinated or recovered people) rules in Germany were not enforced when they visited a restaurant, bar, cinema or other indoor event. 

Just under 30 percent said proof was checked but they did not have to show photo ID as well, which is meant to be the requirement. Only nine percent had their documents fully checked.


So why hasn’t Germany embraced the culture of showing the digital pass in the same way as France – or even other EU countries like Italy?

Trust system

I suppose restaurants, bars, cultural and leisure facilities are trusting customers to have been vaccinated or taken a test. Perhaps they don’t want to dampen the mood by asking people to provide some kind of documentation during social gatherings.

After rafts of businesses being shut down by the government for several months last year and in the first half of 2021, restaurants, cafes and bars are simply happy to see guests again and actually be allowed to make money. Why risk turning people away or making them feel awkward?

We all know that Germany is a freedom-loving country, too, and perhaps asking everyone to get proof out is viewed as a controlling step too far. Small businesses are also understaffed and maybe they don’t want to take on additional bureaucratic burdens.

But given the high percentage of people in Germany who have not been vaccinated, I would feel better knowing that everyone has shown proof during social occasions. Particularly when visiting places like Berlin’s infamous Raucherkneipen (smoking bars) which are not known for their high-quality ventilation. 

The latest data shows 66.3 percent of the German population has received at least one jab and 61.9 percent are fully vaccinated. That’s a long way off health experts’ plea for 80-90 percent vaccination coverage. 

READ ALSO: Unvaccinated workers in Germany could lose pay in quarantine

The restrictions on entry only apply in Germany to indoor areas like dining in restaurants or bars. I also prefer the French way of requiring the proof to sit outside too. Because why not? We’ve gone to all this trouble of vaccinating millions of people, let’s show the proof – or at least make sure people are tested.

“My personal view is that I feel a lot more safe and secure going out for dinner, drinks, etc, knowing that everyone around me is either vaccinated or has tested negative,” says Emma from the Local France. “This will be important over the next couple of months as the temperature falls and socialising moves off the café terraces and indoors.”

Different system 

In France, a QR code has become the standard way of showing proof of vaccination. Although not perfect, it seems that the majority of businesses and people have accepted it. The system can also be used with the EU digital vaccine certificate, like the one we can get in Germany.

“So far there seems to have been fewer problems than anticipated and most of the technical problems have concerned people who were vaccinated outside France,” says Emma.

“EU vaccine certificates can be used on the French app for the health passport but it’s been more tricky for people who got their vaccines in non-EU countries, although the NHS app used in parts of the UK is now compatible with the French system.

“For people who got their vaccine in France the rollout has been remarkably smooth and I think it helped that they made it part of the TousAntiCovid app, which many people were already using. There is also an option to show proof on paper for people who either don’t own a smartphone or don’t want to use the app.”

Germany does not require that everyone has an official QR code, although we are encouraged to get it. People in the Bundesrepublik – a privacy-loving country famous for  shying away from digital upgrades – can use their yellow vaccination booklet or other proof of vaccination, recovery or test.

I think the different ways of showing proof has added to the feeling that it’s not quite a uniform system that everyone is part of. 

Would it make a difference?

Emma says there were two points to the health passport being introduced in France. “To control infection rates and to persuade people to get vaccinated by making daily life inconvenient for those who are not vaccinated,” she says. 

“The vaccination rates saw a huge spike straight after the passport was announced and more than 13 million people have now been jabbed since the date of the announcement. France is now among the European countries with the highest vaccination rates, which is not bad when you consider that back in January 60 percent of French people were telling pollsters that they might not get the vaccine.”

Although the two countries have roughly the same percentage of their population vaccinated at the moment, I wonder what the effect of a similar system to France could be on Germany. 

Of course, the countries differ on many points – France has also introduced mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers – so there are lots of factors to consider.

When it comes to infection rates it’s harder to tell.

France is seeing around 11,000 cases a day, although that’s been dropping steadily for over a month. 

“However that also coincided with the summer holidays – whether that can be sustained now that schools are back, people are back from holidays and in offices etc., remains to be seen,” says Emma. 

As Germany’s vaccine campaign has ground to an almost halt and Covid cases have generally been rising since July – on Friday 12,969 cases were logged within 24 hours – perhaps enforcing a stronger health pass message would be a helpful way of getting everyone on the same page. 

That’s not to say France hasn’t seen problems.

“There have been demonstrations every Saturday for six weeks now,” Emma says. “However, at their peak around 250,000 people demonstrated while 13 million went to get vaccinated. My impression among people I talk to is that it is accepted and in fact a lot of people actively like it.”

A demo outside the Eiffel Tower in Paris against the health passport on September 4th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Thibault Camus

What’s with the German name?

Lastly, it’s hard to write an article about 3G rules in Germany without mentioning the name. As some people have pointed out on Twitter, it’s a bit baffling that Germany has chosen to use a name associated with mobile phone Internet coverage. Not least because there are some conspiracy theorists who believe that getting vaccinated is linked to Bill Gates implanting us all with 5G microchips (for the record – no, that is not happening, it’s fake news.) 

3G makes perfect sense in German since it refers to the German words for vaccinated (geimpft), recovered (genesen) and tested (getestet).

But I can’t help but think another name such as CovPass, which is the German app that many people use to upload their vaccination certificate, might have been a better choice in this case. Especially since Germany is desperately trying to convince vaccine sceptics to get their jabs. 

It’s fair to say every country has its own battles when it comes to Covid vaccinations and controlling the pandemic, and Germany has had its ups and downs. 

I do think that looking to France on the relative success of their pass sanitaire would be a helpful exercise. I and many others are more than happy to show our vaccine certificate before settling down for a beer.