Arbitrary stop and search operations: Migrants caught up in dragnet controls

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The relationship between migrants and the German police is not only under strain because of racist abuse in the form of bodily harm and harassment. With the legalisation of stop and search operations, independent of "reasonable suspicion" or specific incident, in several regional (Länder) police regulations as well the Federal Border Law, the police has gained another instrument which, as practice has shown, is being used increasingly to criminalise migrants.

Bavaria was the first Land to introduce "non suspect and event related" controls (hereafter: arbitrary stop an search) in its regional police regulation in 1994. Since then, several German Länder, such as Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Berlin, Saxony as well as the Federal Government have followed the example and have, in one form or another, enabled their police and Federal Border Guards (BGS) to conduct dragnet controls (2). Depending on the law's regional variations, police forces are allowed to conduct arbitrary stop and search operations within 30 km of the German border region: on thoroughfares (motorways, through-routes in Europe and other important cross border traffic roads), in public international transport facilities, at airports, in trains and train stations or in principle in public transport areas (Lower Saxony, Berlin). During these operations, police are allowed to stop any person, to ask for identification, "to look closely" at objects carried or even to search the person and vehicle. Only the Berlin police and the BGS are constrained in their remits by "situation related findings", or rather "border police experiences." All other regional police forces can conduct unregulated arbitrary stop and search operations.

Aims and objectives

The reasoning behind arbitrary stop and search, according to police regulations and the Federal Border Law, is the "prevention and ending of illegal crossings of national boundaries" and "illegal residence" as well as the "preventative fight against cross border crime". The reasoning behind the alleged necessity of the controls is similarly stereotypical: due to the cessation of internal border controls in the framework of the Schengen Agreement, the crime filtering effect of border controls is no longer present. "Criminal or offensive goods and illegal services", it is claimed, can now be transported easily from one country to another. Furthermore, the high "pressure of illegal migration" on borders is undiminished (3). The necessity of BGS controls was justified by the then government fractions of the CDU/CSU (Christlich Demokratische Union and Christlich Soziale Union) and the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei) with the "disproportionably high contribution of non-German suspects to serious violent offences" as well as the "considerable increase in trafficking through professional trafficking organisations." (4)

Selection criteria

During dragnet controls on motor ways, in trains, train stations etc., it is not possible to control every traveller. For legal reasons (due to "reasonableness" and "from the efficiency point of view") the "pre-selection" is all the more important when conducting arbitrary controls (5). Police regulations themselves do not delineate that certain groups of persons should be controlled. According to the Interior Ministry of Lower Saxony, the implementation regulations of the laws do not impose selection criteria on police officers either (6). A situation report by the Interior Ministry of Bavaria from September 1996 however, conveys a different image: "One or two selecting officers (particularly trained eyes!) are positioned in a closed off lane just before the place of control and they select the vehicles to be controlled by looking into the vehicle interior, according to established criteria" (7). Further, according to the police spokesman for the police headquarters Würzburg, the "police officers...depending on their specific work ex

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