Lars Castellucci is Deputy Chairman of the Interior Committee of the Bundestag. Why the Social Democrat sees a need to catch up on his party’s refugee policy and why Olaf Scholz’s communication also has positives for him.
FOCUS online: Mr. Castellucci, we have a million Ukrainian refugees in the country and many refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and African countries. There is a lack of accommodation, language courses and much more. Is the SPD-led federal government doing enough in refugee policy?
Lars Castellucci : A year ago nobody could have counted on such a large number of refugees from the Ukraine, in addition to the previous migration activity. This is a tour de force for everyone involved, without a doubt. One thing is clear: we need a fresh start in migration policy and we have already initiated this as a traffic light. Migration is not something you can just let happen. You have to actively shape it. Integration is also an ongoing task. Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser rightly said that we have been an immigration country for some time – even if not everyone has understood it yet. The task now is to become a good immigration country.
That is why we want to address the issues of nationality law and immigration law. Both are key issues in order to counteract the shortage of skilled workers and now also of workers.
What is the restart?
Castellucci : Migration is normal. Many can relate to their own families. Of course, this is not without conflict, but we have to recognize this normality.
But what do you say to the people in Germany who do not approve of so much openness, who are afraid?
Castellucci: That we have to talk about it. And that we depend on immigration to maintain our prosperity. When it comes to refugee policy, we cannot rely on barriers and deterrence, but must shape it in such a way that human rights are upheld and legal and safe paths are successfully opened. So that these people no longer have to pay smugglers and risk an often deadly trip across the Mediterranean.
Do you mean the right of residence? As recently as last year, integrated refugees who are working should be deported again.
Castellucci: Exactly, that’s why the law was overdue. With the law, about 100,000 people have the chance to get a residence permit. This is also good for the companies, because their trained employees can stay. But this is only a solution for old cases. We also have to organize the return better going forward. Law and order applies in all directions.
Lars Castellucci has been in the Bundestag for the Rhein-Neckar constituency since 2013. The 48-year-old took over the deputy chairmanship of the interior committee in 2022 and is currently its executive chairman. Previously he was a member of the Europe Committee. Castellucci is the representative for churches and religious communities, spokesman for migration and integration and was deputy spokesman for domestic policy for the SPD parliamentary group until 2021.
And what about the rest?
Castellucci: We have to create safe escape routes for those who have a reason to flee. This can be done, for example, with quotas and humanitarian visas. But among the people who translated across the Mediterranean there are many who are looking for a better life: These people have no place in the asylum system, but they hardly have any alternatives. That has to change, incidentally throughout Europe, not just here.
But we need workers…
Castellucci: Right, that’s why we need legal immigration opportunities for such people. The new immigration law will be in parliament in the first half of the year. We have to spread this model in Europe, because the whole of Europe has a declining birth rate and is dependent on immigration. Everyone will have to see that at some point – including right-wing populist governments like in Italy. But for that we need a functioning set of rules. It cannot be that people have to risk their lives in order to have the prospect of a right to stay.
But it is also true that the return of people who do not get asylum in Germany, criminal offenders, still works more poorly than right. There is little progress even under an SPD interior minister.
Castellucci: This problem exists. We will now negotiate with the countries of origin on an equal footing with the new migration commissioner, Joachim Stamp, and in doing so, shed our post-colonial arrogant attitude. Africa is not a problem, but a continent of opportunity. Africa is young, we are aging. We need new partners in the world. Let’s reach out to African countries. It is unacceptable that one always insists on the return of refugees, but at the same time does not want to talk about visa facilitation or economic cooperation.
What do you suggest instead?
Castellucci: We have to talk about regulated immigration and set up Goethe institutes or German schools abroad in the partner countries so that people who want to work in Germany can learn our language in advance. We can promote cooperation with local German companies, award scholarships or enable circular migration for a limited time. There is a variety of possibilities. But there will always be a violent warlord, natural disasters or famine. We will not get rid of every cause of flight. And we have to deal with that – and do it properly.
Reasons for flight are one thing. The other is how to deal with refugees who commit crimes here. The latest example of this is the knife attack in Brokstedt. How do we deal with convicted criminals?
Castellucci: I am for law and order, everywhere and by everyone. We have a construction site with the repatriations. That didn’t go well for CDU interior ministers under the age of 16, but the repatriations are also a matter for the federal states. We have to be honest. Many migrants cannot really arrive here because they are banned from working and have to work their way through from toleration to toleration. And they cannot go back to their home country, for example because it is at war or because they are threatened with persecution there.
But it is difficult to convey to the population if a violent criminal is not being deported. Shouldn’t the law in this country be tightened so that criminals can be expelled more quickly?
Castellucci: Our laws are sufficient for that. But they also have their limits: the rules apply to everyone, we cannot lock away people who we think could be or become dangerous. We’ve had it before and we don’t have it anymore for good reasons.
And when it comes to Afghanistan as the country of origin, there is simply no room for manoeuvre. If there is a danger to life and limb, deportation is not possible and that is right. And people have already been deported, who then flee again and come back because of the chaotic circumstances in their countries of origin. Then it’s better they come to jail here. But again: The migration agreements that are now being negotiated will ensure that those who are not allowed to stay here because they have no reason for asylum will return more quickly.
That sounds more like cosiness than enforcement of the law.
Castellucci: No. The basic rule is: If someone commits a crime, he must be imprisoned. People who do not recognize our value system must be punished with the full severity of the rule of law – whether they are Reich citizens, right-wing or left-wing radicals or refugees does not matter. The law applies to everyone. Nothing justifies acts of violence. But it’s about recognizing where the solutions lie. The solutions do not lie in condemning foreigners across the board, as was the case after New Year’s Eve.
Why are there repeated violent clashes in refugee shelters?
Castellucci: There are many problems where there is a lack of prospects. The situation is tense in many shelters. And those who are not allowed to work get stupid ideas. The municipalities demand that these people be allowed to work and take language courses right from the start. And that’s what we’ve been asking for for many years. That is why the work bans will also fall. That’s due in spring.
But the SPD is in government responsibility, not in the opposition. It was also a coalition partner in the previous government. But not much has happened in terms of refugee policy…
Castellucci: I accept the criticism that we could have done more. An understanding with the Union was hardly possible in the grand coalition. And even now there are delays that we criticize. But that’s not up to the Ministry. On the contrary: Without Ms. Faeser’s commitment, we would hardly be able to cope so well with taking in the refugees from the Ukraine. On her inaugural visits to the European capitals right after taking over the office of Federal Minister of the Interior, she made a decisive contribution to ensuring that Europe acted as one.
Nevertheless, there are too few language courses and no decentralized accommodation for refugees…
Castellucci: It’s true that we should start giving language courses in the refugee camps. Instead, we have country-specific bans, procedures that get in the way. And there are practical problems: We can’t find any German teachers for the schools – how are we supposed to find any for integration courses? It will not be possible to find a solution for the accommodation any time soon: This is due to the special situation caused by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Should we therefore say that we are no longer helping? It’s our neighbors. The federal, state and local governments, full-time and voluntary work together will meet this challenge.
How much has Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser campaigned to change the circumstances?
Castellucci: She has already visited more European countries than her predecessor Horst Seehofer (CSU), she has worked hard to agree on a fair distribution of admissions. Seehofer only ever said that we shouldn’t go it alone. But we cannot wait for others to lead the way. You can’t wait for a European solution, you have to work for it. It has also made unpopular decisions like more border controls with Austria when irregular migration via the Balkan route has picked up again. And just last week she appointed a special representative for migration agreements.
But what exactly did the minister do? Just traveling a lot is no proof of quality.
Castellucci: Your work has meant that after February 24th we were able to guarantee protection status for Ukrainians in the EU in a very short time and with the solidarity mechanism there is now a model of how we can achieve a fairer distribution of refugees in Europe. However, your ministry also has many other tasks to deal with, such as the reform of electoral law, the protection of critical infrastructure, civil protection, responsibility for the federal police and other security authorities.
After Brokstedt’s knife attack, however, she seemed as if she had few answers but many questions herself.
Castellucci: I don’t share that impression. She is always on site quickly when something happens, always very visible, speaks clearly. She was also quick in Neukölln. As far as New Year’s Eve is concerned, we still don’t have a nationwide picture of the situation because some countries are blocking it. However, we need an accurate picture of the situation in order to be able to decide which steps must be taken. I think that there must be more possibilities to determine large ban zones for firecrackers. And anyone who attacks the police or rescue workers or lures them into an ambush must feel the full harshness of the rule of law more quickly.
There is now criticism of Faeser’s approach that, in addition to her position as Federal Minister of the Interior, she also wants to run as a top candidate in Hesse, especially from the Hessian Greens.
Castellucci: That disappointed me. For me, this is an election campaign: The Greens govern with the Union in Hesse, Ms. Faeser is competition here.
Can you do both? Top candidate and Minister of the Interior?
Castellucci: I find it unbearable that this debate is being carried out so thoroughly by a woman. This is not the case with men. Most recently, with Armin Laschet, we had a candidate for Chancellor of the Union, who continued his office as Prime Minister in North Rhine-Westphalia. With Ms. Faeser we suddenly have a compatibility issue. It is good when experienced personalities from top positions make themselves available for further offices. Ms. Faeser is extremely resilient and will do an excellent job.
It is clear that the two things must be kept separate. On her Instagram profile, she published the information that her campaign team will continue to do so in the future, and no longer by the ministry. So she’s very clear and professional there.
Apparently she has the chancellor’s backing. Olaf Scholz lost a lot of international trust with his communication on the tank issue. Couldn’t that have gone better?
Castellucci: Olaf Scholz has become what he is the way he is. But I also admit that we also have wishes as far as the Chancellor’s communication is concerned. He speaks differently in the parliamentary group meetings: he is present practically every week of the meeting, gives us good insights, speaks with strength and even wit. People out there experience that less often. But when it comes to Ukraine, it’s a difficult business: It’s not possible to go into detail every day about the next steps or what’s being negotiated behind the scenes: Putin listens to everything. Even we as a group have to recognize that sometimes we have to wait. We trust him.