Germany’s difficulty deporting refugee exposes system flaws
Instead of trapping asylum-seekers in years of residency appeals, people from obviously dangerous places should be allowed stay. Others should be judged on integration, says Leonid Bershidsky.
Germany has a problem with migants who have been denied asylum. Getting them to leave is far from easy.
Last week, police in Ellwangen, in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, attempted to pick up a 23-year-old Togolese man at a refugee hostel to deport him to Italy, the country where he first crossed the border into the EU.
About 150 other Africans at the hostel wouldn’t allow it. They heavily outnumbered the 24 officers, and forced them to hand over the keys of the man’s handcuffs.
The police had to retreat. They returned in force three days later and took the Togolese man away. Some 27 of the hostel residents are being held for rioting.
The story made national headlines, and right-wing opposition parties latched onto the initial retreat of the police as evidence of the weakness of the German state in the face of the immigrant ‘threat’.
Joerg Meuthen, of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, talked of a “capitulation”. and Christian Lindner, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, spoke of “law-free zones”.
It doesn’t much matter that the police didn’t actually give up and that the riot was put down. Interior minister Horst Seehofer , whose views on immigrants are far to the right of the chancellor, Angela Merkel’s, called the incident “a slap in the face of law-abiding people” and accused the Togolese man’s defenders of “trampling” on German hospitality.
The government’s idea of a response, pushed eagerly by Seehofer, is to set up ‘anchor centres’, in which all newly arriving asylum applicants would be housed, while their applications are processed. Those denied would be
deported. Seehofer claims the centres would even be good for the asylum-seekers, because the programme would somehow accelerate the processing.
It’s clear why some sort of solution is needed. For 2016 and 2017, 406,153 people were denied asylum in Germany. In the same two years, only 49,300 people were deported, or left ‘voluntarily’ under pressure from authorities.
Many of the unsuccessful asylum seekers appeal the denials in the courts, and remain in Germany while the legal wheels grind. One famous case involves a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, whom Germany has been trying to deport to Tunisia since 2006.
The courts have refused to allow the deportation, because there is no guarantee he won’t be tortured in Tunisia. Meanwhile, the man is watched by domestic intelligence as a potential terrorist and has been receiving social aid.
The system isn’t working.
This puts pressure on the government to assert its power. But ‘anchor camps’ aren’t the answer.
Everywhere the refugee detention centres exist in Europe, from Hungary (where all asylum seekers are channeled into them) to Britain (where about half of potential refugees are placed in them), they are a spot on the government’s human rights record.
Even where living conditions are adequate, immigrants spend months with nothing to do, unsure whether they should prepare to stay or go, isolated from the receiving society, and unable to adapt.
These are breeding grounds for hostility, and, given Europe’s transparent internal borders, that’s a threat. Last year, Germany deported 7,102 people to the EU countries where the asylum-seekers had entered the union.
Sometimes, they come back. Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, had spent time in such a facility in Italy and then served time for crimes committed there.
After the attack, he travelled by train to Italy, where, more or less by accident, he was shot by a police officer.
Detention centres might easily become breeding grounds for incidents like the one in Ellwangen. The huge difference between the number of asylum denials and the number of deportations requires out-of-the-box thinking.
The system might need radical simplification, with the citizens of a shortlist of war-torn nations and dictatorships automatically getting protection.
Everyone without papers or from countries not on the list should see a clear path to residency, with a number of checkpoints: Language proficiency exams, tests on cultural norms, the recognition of professional qualifications, a deadline for getting a job, and a cut-off date for social assistance.
Failure at any of these stages should terminate temporary residency and result in either a voluntary departure or deportation. Any immigrant on this programme (but not a qualified refugee) should know that being convicted of a crime means automatic deportation to the country of origin.
Germany shouldn’t waste time on checking asylum seekers’ stories and then on years of appeals. It should unconditionally help people from clearly dangerous countries, such as Syria, and demand integration efforts from the rest, while providing the means for that integration.
I wish Germany could be the first to do this and give up trying to get tougher in implementing dysfunctional rules.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, covering European politics and business.