A Sahrawi refugee in a camp near Tindouf, Algeria
A Sahrawi refugee in a camp near Tindouf, Algeria

Germany is considering whether to declare four more countries “safe countries of origin.” A law being debated in the German Parliament would add Georgia as well as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to the list of safe countries, which currently includes all EU member states, six Balkan countries, Ghana and Senegal.

Germany’s upper house is set to debate the bill this week for the second time. The first attempt to pass it into law last year failed when some states opposed it on humanitarian grounds. The government says the aim is to deter asylum requests, and to speed up processing and deportations of people who have little chance of being granted protection in Germany.

What are safe countries of origin?

According to German asylum law, safe countries of origin are those in which there is no risk of

  • Political persecution
  • Death penalty or execution
  • Torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or
  • Threat to an individual’s life due to armed conflict.

Applications for asylum from people from “safe countries” are usually rejected, unless the individual can prove that they face persecution.

However, an asylum application from an individual who comes from a “safe country” is considered the same as any other application.

Which countries are considered safe?

Germany’s list of safe countries currently includes all the other EU member states, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Ghana and Senegal. If the Parliament approves the bill this time, Georgia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco will be added.

In 2017, Germany granted asylum to a very small percentage of applicants from these countries: Morocco 4.1%; Algeria 2%; Tunisia 2.7%; Georgia 0.6%.

What critics say

The German Greens and some members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) remain opposed to the proposed additions to the safe countries list. The Greens say the three North African states, in particular, are not safe according to Germany’s own criteria, citing the threat of torture, persecution of gay men and lesbians, and inadequate protection of women and girls against sexual violence.

A Tunisian migrant walking on Lampedusa | Credit: ANSA/Francesco Solina

In August, a group of organizations, including Amnesty International Germany and Pro Asyl, sent an open letter to protest the bill. They said that in the first quarter of 2018, the recognition rates of asylum seekers from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia had all been over the 5 percent threshold set down in the government manifesto, the ‘Koalitionsvertrag’. According to that agreement, the recognition rate for asylum seekers must regularly drop below 5 percent to justify classification of a country as “safe.”

Critics also point out that a small proportion, about five percent, of asylum applicants in Germany in the first six months of this year, came from the countries being considered. Less than 2 percent of total applications came from nationals from the North African states, according to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

How 'safe' is the 'safe country' concept? 

Church groups in Germany, such as Diakonie and Caritas, have expressed fundamental criticism of the concept of safe countries of origin. The German Greens say the concept is at odds with refugees’ right of protection. The 1951 Refugee Convention also sets out a duty on states to treat refugees without discrimination based on their country of origin. (Art. 3)

In 2015, the European Union established a common list of safe countries with the stated aim of fast-tracking asylum applications from people from these countries. However, each member state still uses its own list, leading to different recognition rates of similar asylum applications, and thus creating incentives for “asylum shopping,” the European Commission points out.

The way forward

In Germany, opponents of the government’s latest bill have argued that it makes little sense to change the safe countries list at the same time as the EU is trying to introduce a common asylum procedure which would centralize such a process.

The German Parliament is due to issue a statement on the proposed legislation on Friday. The bill will then be voted on in the lower house before being returned to the upper house for a final decision.

 

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