As Germans try to come to terms with the bloodiest attack on their country in decades, their government is focusing on toughening the deportation laws.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are eager to push through legislation, currently blocked by the opposition, that would declare Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria “safe countries of origin,” allowing authorities to easily reject asylum applications from nationals of those countries as “clearly unfounded.”
Armin Laschet, deputy party chief of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU,) said in an email that his party wants to see an end to this parliamentary blockade in January.
Critics argue that even if Tunisia had been considered a “safe place of origin,” it wouldn’t have done anything to prevent the Berlin Christmas market attack, help catch the 24-year-old Tunisian suspect Anis Amri, who German authorities knew had been radicalized, or speed up his deportation to Tunisia.
“Even if [Merkel’s conservatives] had declared the entire world a safe country of origin, this attack would have happened,” said Konstantin von Notz, deputy group leader of the Green Party. “This is a diversionary tactic.”
Beneath what is essentially a symbolic debate — very few applications for asylum from Tunisians, Moroccans or Algerian are approved — is a political struggle among the government leadership to agree on a common response to a growing anxiety over migration in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on December 19 that left 12 dead and 53 wounded.
Search for common ground
In the last two years, Germany has labeled six countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia — “safe countries of origin.”
Around a year ago, Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), commonly known as the “Union,” began to demand that Maghreb countries be added to the list, claiming this would accelerate deportations and deter other migrants from seeking refuge in Germany.
“It worked with applicants from the Balkan, why shouldn’t it work for Tunisia or Morocco?” Laschet said in the email.
Since Merkel’s controversial decision to temporarily open the borders to refugees stuck in Hungary in the fall of 2015, political resistance to her open-door policy has steadily grown. The far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has grown from 4 percent to around 12 percent, according to polls. And Merkel’s decision has fractured relations between her party and the traditionally more conservative Bavarian CSU.
Although Merkel has since changed her rhetoric and toughened up rules for asylum seekers, her Bavarian allies have continued to be among her most vocal critics, demanding, for example, an upper limit on migrants entering Germany, which Merkel rejects.
The issue of asylum seekers from the Maghreb countries first became a political lightning rod last year when hundreds of women reported that they had been sexually assaulted during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and elsewhere. Officials later confirmed that of the almost 900 sexual offenses registered that night, most were seemingly committed by young men from Algeria, Morocco and Iraq.
Soon after, the German government began to draw up a plan to declare Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia “safe.” The move was intended as “a signal that it’s not worth applying for asylum,” an official of the state interior ministry of Saxony, where most Tunisian asylum seekers in Germany live, explained at a hearing of a German parliamentary committee in April.
In May, Germany’s lower house of parliament, where Merkel’s conservatives hold the majority in a coalition with the Social Democrats, passed the law. However, it was blocked by the upper house, where the opposition Green Party has more power, because of concerns that migrants deported back to North Africa could face persecution and human rights abuses, particularly in the case of political dissidents or members of the gay community.
Since then, the German parliament has been in a de facto deadlock over the issue.
Just hours after news broke of the Christmas market attack, the CSU renewed calls for a shift in Germany’s migration policy. “We should now think over and adjust our entire migration and security policy,” said party chief Horst Seehofer. “We owe it to the victims, those who were affected, and the entire population.”
Both parties are aware that, with an election looming next year, they need to put an end to the political infighting if they are to avoid losing votes to the ascendant AfD or others.
Declaring Maghreb countries “safe states of origins” is one of the few policy responses to the refugee crisis that the sister parties have consistently agreed on.
But the Greens have so far resisted.
“The union exploits this attack for demands, which have nothing to do with the attack committed by Amri,” said the Greens’ von Notz, “It’s not that he wasn’t sent back because Tunisia wasn’t a ‘safe country of origin,’ but because he didn’t have any identity papers.”
Certainly, the Amri case has demonstrated how much governments depend on the cooperation of recipient countries in deportations. But that, too, has become political football.
“We need to increase diplomatic pressure on countries that are unwilling to take back their citizens,” said CDU deputy party chief Laschet, “This is particularly the job of the foreign minister, and one would hope for a little more commitment from him.”
Germany’s foreign ministry is headed by the Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose party is running against Merkel’s CDU in next year’s election.
After arriving in Italy in 2011, Amri was reportedly due to be deported first in 2015 after serving time in prison in Italy. He managed to make his way to Germany, where he filed another application for asylum. Although it was soon rejected, authorities again failed to send him back when he failed to provide them with proof of citizenship.
It wasn’t until two days after the attack that Tunisia delivered replacement documents necessary for the deportation, said Ralf Jäger, the regional interior minister in North Rhine-Westphalia state, where Amri had registered as a refugee.
The Tunisian government rejects those claims. On Monday, Radhouane Ayara, a spokesperson for the Tunisian Foreign Ministry, told German press agency DPA that Tunisian authorities had approved Amri’s deportation two days before the attack.
Details about the Amri case also raise doubts about the effectiveness of an agreement Germany made with Tunisia earlier his year. In March, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced a “breakthrough” regarding the deportation of migrants back to the Maghreb region.
After three days of touring Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, de Maizière introduced a roadmap to speed up deportations, stressing his plan was not about sending back the “tens of thousands of law-abiding [Tunisian citizens living in Germany] who own businesses, pay taxes, and send their children to German schools,” but those who had recently come to the country as part of the influx of refugees to Europe, some of whom claimed to be from war-torn Syria.
While the number of deportations to Maghreb countries have gone up since then, they remain a small fraction of the overall number of denied asylum claims.
“They pretended in March that things were solved,” said Ulf Küch, the deputy chief of BDK, a Germany police union. “But nothing was solved, by no means.”
Around 9,000 people from the three Maghreb countries, who have been denied asylum, currently live in Germany, according to government numbers from November. Of those, 6,200 have had their deportations suspended temporarily, for example, because they failed to provide sufficient documentation about their original nationality, as was reportedly the case of Amri.
In the first 11 months of 2016, 111 asylum seekers were deported to Tunisia, compared to 17 the year before, according to the German interior ministry. The number of people deported to Morocco rose from 61 to 99 between 2015 and 2016. And deportations to Algeria rose from 57 to 140.
Merkel’s government seems eager to convey the message that her government is working hard to bring the numbers further up. But the administration wants to be seen as tough on North African immigrants for other reasons, as well.
In general, crime in Germany has not gone up following the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees since the fall of 2015. Of roughly two million people investigated for crimes in Germany in 2015, 6 percent were migrants, less than the overall proportion of foreign-born people in the population which stands at 10 percent.
Asylum seekers from the Maghreb, however, are the outliers.
While only two percent of asylum seekers came from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, 14 percent of all crimes by newly arrived migrants were committed by those nationals, according to a 2015 crime report from Germany’s Federal Criminal Office (BKA.)
“It’s less about terrorism. It’s about pickpocketing, shoplifting, some burglary — small-time crime that worries the population,” said Küch, echoing concerns from other law enforcement officials.
Alarmed by accounts like these, Merkel’s conservatives are eager to push their bloc’s traditional image as a bastion of law and order ahead of next year’s elections.
“A consistent zero-tolerance-policy would have prevented — as we now know — both the excesses during New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other crimes,” Laschet said.