Refugees and migration

A collage of people
Porträts Flüchtlinge. (Collage: Bash, kroomjai, Ali Sekeroglu, BalkansCat, Magsi, RAMAZAN NACAR, ehasdemir, Adriana Mahdalova)

During the course of 2015, a topic which had tended to take a back seat in media reports and political debate suddenly hit the headlines: refugees and migration. It has never entirely gone away since. Researchers at FAU have an important role to play in this respect: they ask searching questions, they are a valuable source of advice and experience, they can see the bigger picture and think to the future.

Large numbers of people across the globe are on the move, fleeing armed conflict, persecution and severe violations of human rights. Surveys have shown that refugees and migration have been among the top issues of concern to Europeans for some five years now,  and the topic has remained a prominent issue in debates at all political levels and in the media. Migration, refugees’ rights and refugee policy is also at the centre of efforts being carried out by a collaborative project at the Centre for Human Rights Erlangen-Nürnberg (CHREN) at FAU.

Over a period of five years, FAU researchers led by Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel, a founding member and the deputy director of CHREN, will work together with three other partner institutes on the topic of ‘Forced Migration and Refugee Studies: Networking and Knowledge Transfer’ (FFVT). The project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research aims to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration in the field of research into refugees and migration.

‘Although many individual projects have been set up in Germany dealing with the various aspects of refugee and migration research, we are lacking structure, networks and an institutional foundation such as institutes, professorships or degree programmes,’ says Dr. Lorenz Wiese, a political scientist involved in the Erlangen-based project. That is what the collaborative FFVT project hopes to change. Dr. Wiese explains, ‘We aim to considerably improve the international visibility of German research into forced migration and refugees, establish research collaborations, set up degree programmes and encourage dialogue between academia, media, politics and current practices.’


At the Centre for Human Rights Erlangen-Nürnberg (CHREN), researchers from various faculties and disciplines at FAU investigate regional, national and international developments in the area of human rights. They are committed to studying current issues in theory and practice in the field of human rights from an interdisciplinary perspective. The researchers discuss topical issues relating to human rights in their podcast.

The researchers hope to achieve their objectives by offering fellowship programmes, summer schools and graduate centres, participating in international conferences and initiating forums and workshops. ‘It is also up to us to offer decision-makers room to work together to tackle what is undoubtedly one of the greatest global challenges of our time,’ stresses Dr. Lorenz Wiese.

In the summer, more than 200 international experts from academia, NGOs, think tanks, ministries and associations, the UN High Commission for Refugees and politicians from the German and European parliaments all met online to participate in the first large workshop on ‘Refugees, governance and migration.’ Together, they focused on the challenges at a global, European and national level related to migration, governance and human rights and considered questions such as where are the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees leading? What ought to be done about the common European asylum system? What can the German presidency of the EU Council achieve, also in view of the coronavirus pandemic? Researchers from various faculties and disciplines have joined forces at CHREN to research fundamental and urgent topics relating to human rights, but this is not the only institute at FAU to deal with these issues.

A number of other projects focusing on governance and human rights, refugees and health are currently underway at the interdisciplinary and cross-regional Centre for Area Studies. ‘Any discussion about migration and human rights will always also cover topics such as access to education, health, employment or accommodation. Integration is therefore an important overriding topic which is of particular interest to us in Erlangen,’ says Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel, Director of the Centre for Area Studies. Together with her colleagues, she monitors the situation at the various political levels and advises political decision-makers in her position as chairperson of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration and as a member of the German government’s expert committee on ‘Integration’.

With more than 20 years’ experience in researching and teaching about refugees and migration, she is particularly interested in the situation at a local level. In a collaborative project with the University of Hildesheim, Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel has researched integration policies in 92 local authorities across twelve German states. The study ‘Two worlds apart? Integration politics in urban and rural municipalities’ focused on the strategies taken by local authorities to cope with increased immigration in 2015/2016 and investigated how sustainable the established structures were.

The myth of mass migration of ethnic groups

When a particularly large number of refugees arrived in Western Europe, especially Germany, in summer 2015 there was talk of a ‘mass exodus’. The veiled references were clear, bringing to mind the mass migrations incited by the Huns between the 4th and 6th centuries in Europe which led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. The historic process was not as straightforward as it might seem, however, and did not involve a mass migration of certain peoples. People in Late Antiquity did not live in clearly defined nation states with clear borders. This is wishful thinking on the part of scholars in the 19th century, whose way of thinking coloured their view of the past. Rather, people were permanently on the move, usually in tribal groups which did not necessarily only comprise one ethnic group. However, what was unusual between the 4th and the 6th centuries was the massive scale of the migration of Goths and Vandals, Angles and Saxons and other tribal groups and how diverse these groups of people on the move were. It was not specific ethnic groups or ‘peoples’ who were migrating. Again, this is an example of how contemporary attitudes have distorted our view of history. Historical researchers are careful of the language they use when investigating mass migrations of people(s), and are loathe to make comparisons with the present day.

Claus W. Schäfer

The interdisciplinary project ‘Verbal Violence against Migrants in Institutions’ (VIOLIN) brings together experts in area studies, linguistics, health psychology and psychosomatic medicine to investigate veiled forms of ostracism and symbolic violence towards migrants in institutions. According to Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel, the project explores verbal violence experienced by migrants and refugees in institutions such as immigration authorities. The researchers focus on the consequences this has on the physical and mental health of the migrants and the long-term impact experiences like this have on their ability to integrate. Petra Bendel is also involved in studies dealing with challenges and scenarios for migration, refugees and integration during and after the coronavirus pandemic, and projects at a European level such as ‘When Mayors make Migration Policy’ on the role of European cities and city networks in migration policy.

Prof. Dr. Anuscheh Farahat, a professor of public law, migration law and human rights at FAU, explores European migration policy from another angle. Together with her colleague Prof. Dr. Nora Markard from the University of Münster (WWU), she has conducted a study into sea rescue, places of safety and the stance taken by the European Union (EU). The study ‘Places of Safety in the Mediterranean: The EU’s Policy of Outsourcing Responsibility’ was commissioned by the European Union office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and deals with issues surrounding the rescuing of refugees in distress on the Mediterranean Sea.

Can those who are rescued be taken to North African countries without violating international and European law? Can Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia be considered places of safety for those who are rescued? If not, can vessels which have rescued refugees be instructed to take them to North African countries? These are among the issues being explored by Prof. Dr. Anuscheh Farahat from a legal point of view.

She comes to the conclusion that ‘unfortunately, in practice the EU and its member states systematically try to shirk their responsibilities under the international law of the sea and human rights obligations and pass the buck for providing protection to states in North Africa. They claim these states should either prevent people from boarding a boat in the first place, or be prepared to take them back if they do.’ According to Prof. Dr. Anuscheh Farahat, this is a violation of human rights and the international law of the sea. ‘The international law of the sea stipulates that rescued people have to be taken to a place of safety. Refugees who are returned to Libya or other North African states are often subjected to arbitrary prison sentences under inhuman circumstances, severe abuse, illegal deportation or even torture and death. This has been well documented, both by large NGOs and by the UN.’

Prof. Dr. Anuscheh Farahat is therefore of the opinion that EU member states should stop instructing private rescuers to take the people they have rescued to states where their lives are under threat and where they fear persecution and exploitation. Based on the results of the study, she calls on EU member states to stop shirking their responsibility to provide protection by cooperating with regimes where inhumane conditions are rife. Instead, she believes the EU states should meet their human rights obligations to protect people who have run into difficulty whilst fleeing persecution and offer legal ways of providing these people with access into the EU.

About the author

Michael Kniess studied political science and sociology at FAU and completed training as a journalist before starting his career as a freelance journalist and author. The publications he writes for include, die Welt am Sonntag and the Nürnberger Zeitung.

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