Asylum-related parliamentary questions during the refugee crisis in the German Bundestag: Surprising lessons from a content analysis

Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann/pixabay.com

Five years have passed since the large inflow of people seeking asylum in Europe that was also labeled “refugee crisis”. At that time, public discourses in the EU member countries evolved around narratives emphasizing humanitarianism, security threat, and economization. Within weeks, the main message sent by the media and politicians shifted from empathic support for vulnerable individuals to suspicious and hostile eyeballing of sometimes even dangerous strangers (Georgiu and Zaborowski 2017). In this blog post, we are interested in the way individual MPs addressed the topic asylum during the course of the crisis. We aim to explore two related research questions: Firstly, did the content of MPs’ parliamentary questions undergo a similar shift from refugee- to nation-state-centered priorities? And secondly, which substantial priorities can we uncover in the parliamentary questions submitted by MPs of immigrant origin?

Scholarly work engaging with public discourse surrounding immigration in general and the crisis more specifically points out that timing matters in the sense that certain narratives are more prominent in the discussion at some points than others: Human rights, the well-being of refugees, and humanitarian aid were prominent narratives in the first weeks of the crisis in summer 2015, but cultural and security threats as well as challenges for the welfare state quickly increased in their importance in the political discourse (Georgiu and Zaborowski 2017; Greussing and Boomgaarden 2017; Budde et al. 2018). MPs might react to such shifts in public opinion and make use of parliamentary questions to set these issues on the political agenda. If so, we should ovserve similar shifts in the content of MPs’ inquiries over the course of the crisis.

Assuming that MPs are not merely vote-seeking actors but bring their own priorities to the table, other studies have revealed that MPs’ individual characteristics shape their legislative priorities. Most notably, representatives of immigrant origin tend to inquire more frequently about topics related to immigration (see e.g. Saalfeld 2011; Wüst 2014). However, there is also evidence that many MPs belonging to this group are suspicious of extensive minority rights (Aydemir and Vliegenhart 2016) and that having an immigrant background might not be as decisive for legislators’ priorities as committee membership or party ideology (Geese 2020). Given that the life experiences of MPs of immigrant origin in parliament on the one hand and refugees on the other hand might be very different, we aim to uncover to what extent these representatives promote the well-being of refugees as opposed to emphasizing the threat to the nation state.

To explore these patterns empirically, we study oral questions submitted by German MPs between 2013 and 2017 (18th legislative period).[1] Since MPs are free to emphasize any substantial issue in these questions, they are more informative concerning the preferences of individual party members than policy proposals or speeches. Out of all questions, we identified 135 as engaging with asylum-related topics through a keyword search.[2] We hand coded the content of these questions into two main dimensions depending on the perspective they put on the topic: refugee or nation-state perspective. Questions taking the “refugee perspective” engage with topics that relate to the protection of refugees’ basic human rights, the organization of the asylum process, but also the supply of healthcare, housing, financial support, or integration measures. Questions that take the “nation state perspective”, by contrast, put emphasis on threats to national and international security induced through the crisis and refugees, deportation policy, asylum fraud, or the overload of the welfare state or the society due to the inflow of asylum seekers. A third category ‘others’ includes all those questions which, although related to flight and refugees, cannot be clearly assigned to any of the above described categories. This last category includes mostly questions about the number of asylum applications. As main explanatory variable, we include the point in time at which a question was submitted as quarter per year and whether an MP is of immigrant origin. Additionally, we control for the party membership and sex of the authors of the questions.[3]

Diving into the numbers, we see that 66% of all asylum-related questions were concerned with the rights, needs, and interests of refugees, while only 15% engaged with nation state interests and 19% with other issues. The 135 questions were submitted by only 26 different MPs. On average, each of these actors hence asked five relevant questions, but this includes outlier Ulla Jelpke (DIE LINKE), who asked 48 related questions. One fifth of the MPs engaging with asylum in their parliamentary questions had a migration background. Given that only 6% of all legislative office-holders at that time were of immigrant origin (Mediendienst Integration 2017), this group of legislators is clearly more interested in questioning the government about asylum and refugees. Furthermore, most of the 26 MPs asking relevant questions are members of the opposition parties: 50% belong to the green party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and 42% to the left party (Die LINKE). Additionally, a single member of the Christian democrats (CDU) and an independent MP submitted asylum-related questions [4], but not a single MP belonging to the social democratic (SPD) or Christian social (CSU) parties. Given that CDU/CSU and SPD were governing at that time, the low usage of parliamentary questions indicates that this is a tool mostly used by the opposition.

Figure 1 shows the frequency of asylum related questions over time – both in general and by issue focus. Even though asylum was not as prominent as a topic before the peak of the crisis in the fourth quarter of 2015, MPs submitted small numbers of questions engaging with related issues already in 2014. In fall 2015, a sudden and steep increase of inquiries about asylum is visible. This effect lasts for about one year before the salience of the topic decreases again, but the number of asylum-related questions remains larger than before the crisis. Turning to the substance of these questions, Figure 1 reveals that the rights and needs of refugees constitute the main focal point of the inquiries over the whole legislative period. They constitute between 50% of all asylum-related questions in 2014 and 71% in 2017. By contrast, questions emphasizing the wellbeing of the nation state are comparably scarce, albeit with some variation in numerical strength. They peaked already one year before the major outbreak of the crisis (i.e. in 2014), where they reached 30% of all questions. In 2015, their share decreased to 16% of all asylum-related questions, and later on to 15% in 2016 and 6% in 2017.

Figure 1. Frequency of questions by narrative over time (2013-2017).

We now turn to differences in the content of questions submitted by MPs with and without immigrant background. Figure 2 shows that MPs of immigrant origin are considerably more likely than their colleagues to ask questions related to the protection of the nation state rather than the rights and needs of refugees. Only 10% of the questions submitted by MPs without immigrant background focus on the nation state, while 43% of the questions submitted by MPs with immigrant background fall into this category. A simple t-test for mean comparison shows that this difference in the share of nation-state-oriented questions between the two groups of MPs is statistically significantly different from zero at the 0.01%-level. We hence observe that MPs of immigrant origin are quite active when it comes to submitting questions related to asylum, but that they apply a perspective that focuses on the nation-state interests rather than the refugees and their needs. 

Figure 2. Frequency of questions by focus and immigrant origin of questioners.

In a last stage of our analyses, we test whether these findings hold in a logistic regression model, that includes the timing of the submission and MPs’ characteristics (immigrant origin, membership in a left-wing opposition party, sex). The models presented in Table 1 predict the likelihood that a question focuses on the wellbeing of the nation state as opposed to refugee needs or other topics. While Model 1 includes a dummy variable for the submission of the question during the crisis year (Q4 2015 to Q3 2016), Model 2 includes a continuous measure for time (as quarter per year) and its squared term to allow for a u-shaped relationship. Model 3 excludes all asylum-related questions submitted by the one MP who is most actively in this regard, while Model 4 excludes the “others” category and hence allows for a direct comparison between questions addressing the nation-state and refugee perspective. All models present robust evidence for the patterns outlined above: Firstly, there is no indication that questions that MPs submitted engaged more frequently with national interests during the peak of the crisis. Secondly, inquiries from MPs of immigrant origin – independent of their party membership and sex, or the timing of the submission – are about twice as likely to engage with the wellbeing of the nation state compared to the rights and needs of refugees.

Table 1: Logistic regression predicting the likelihood that a question focuses on the wellbeing of the nation state.

Overall, the analysis of asylum-related parliamentary questions leaves us with two unexpected insights: We can see that the topics that MPs emphasize in their questions to the government do not simply mirror the content of the discourse in the media or plenary debates. Parliamentary questions follow their own rationale that is worth being explored in more detail. Secondly, MPs with an immigrant background are more prone to emphasize the nation state’s interests in parliamentary questions rather than those of refugees. Even though refugees in general constitute a subgroup of citizens of immigrant origin, the communalities within the group might not be sufficient to justify that shared experiences lead to an enhanced understanding of the interests and needs of the group as suggested by the “Politics of Presence” argument (Phillips 1995).

By Jonas Dietrich, Dzaneta Kaunaite, and Corinna Kroeber in September 2020

Jonas Dietrich is a graduate student and research assistant at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Greifswald. He is interested in studying institutionalism, institutional changes and cooperation theories.

Dzaneta Kaunaite is a graduate student and research assistant at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Greifswald. Her research interests include the analysis of political parties, party politics and political processes.

Endnotes

[1] The data was retrieved from Remschel & Kroeber (2019) “Every single word – A new database on legislative behavior in Germany since 1949”.

[2] The list of keywords included verbs, nouns and adjectives related to asylum, flight, refugee, illegal immigration, as well as the specific terms “BAMF” (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge), which is the main institution involved into the asylum process in Germany, “Sozialtourism” (translates into social tourism), “Armutszuwanderung” (poverty migration), “Willkommenskultur” (welcome culture), which are key terms in the German asylum discourse at that time.

[3] Information on the migration background was retrieved from Mediendienst Integration 2017.

[4] The former MP Erika Steinbach left the CDU on January the 15th 2017 and henceforth acted as an independent member in the German parliament.

References

Aydemir, N. & Vliegenthart, R. (2016) ‘Minority Representatives’ in the Netherlands: Supporting, Silencing or Suppressing? Parliamentary Affairs 69 (1). 73-92.

Budde, N., Jandura, O. & Dohle, M. (2018) Das Framing der Flüchtlingskrise in Parlament und Parlamentsmagazinen Zeitschrift für Parteienwissenschaften 1. 31-39.

Frid-Nielsen, S. S. (2018) Human rights or security? Positions on asylum in European Parliament speeches. European Union Politics 19 (2). 344-362.

Geese, L. (2020) Immigration-related Speechmaking in a Party-constrained Parliament: Evidence from the ‘Refugee Crisis’ of the 18th German Bundestag (2013–2017), German Politics, 29:2, 201-222.

Georgiou, M. & Zabrowski, R. (2017) Media coverage of the “refugee crisis”: A cross-European perspective. Council of Europe Report, April 2017.

Gianfreda, Stella (2018) Politicization of the refugee crisis?: A content analysis of parliamentary debates in Italy, the UK, and the EU. Italian Political Science Review/ Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica 48 (1). 85-108.

Greussing, E. & Boomgaarden, H. G. (2017) Shifting the refugee narrative? An automated frame analysis of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (11). 1749-1774.

Mediendienst Integration, 2017: Abgeordnete mit Migrationshintergrund im 19. Deutschen Bundestag: https://mediendienst-integration.de/fileadmin/MDI_Recherche_Bundestag_2017.pdf, 09.09.20.

Phillips, A. (1995). The politics of presence. The political representation of gender, ethnicity, and race.

Remschel, T. & Kroeber, C. (2019) Every single word – A new database on legislative behavior in Germany since 1949.

Saalfeld, T. (2011) Parliamentary Questions as Instruments of Substantive Representation: Visible Minorities in the UK House of Commons, 2005-10. The Journal of Legislative Studies 17 (3). 271-289.

Wüst, A. M. (2014) A Lasting Impact? On the Legislative Activities of Immigrant-origin Parliamentarians in Germany. The Journal of Legislative Studies 20 (4). 495-515.

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