Debates about asylum seekers and deportation have intensified in Germany
Debates about asylum seekers and deportation have intensified in Germany

The recent case in Germany of a young West African man who was deported amid intense publicity has highlighted the country's problems in dealing with rejected asylum seekers.

Early in the morning on the 15th of May, a young Togolese man lost his battle to remain in Germany. The 23-year-old was taken by police to the airport where he was put on a plane to Italy, the country where he first crossed the border into the EU.

German authorities had already tried to deport Yussif O. twice. The last attempt on the night of May 1 had to be abandoned after about 150 other migrants at the asylum center in Ellwangen threatened police and forced them to stand down. Three days later they returned amid much publicity and took Yussif O. into custody.

The Ellwangen case -- and that of another man who has lived in Germany for more than a decade, despite being a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden -- have led to heated debates in the media and among politicians about why Germany has such a problem deporting its unwanted migrants. 

Some people have been calling for more migrants to be deported. Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer -- who called the Ellwangen incident a “slap in the face of the law-abiding public” and accused Yussif O.’s defenders of “trampling” on German hospitality -- has vowed to announce a “master plan for faster asylum procedures and more consistent deportations” by the end of May.

A large majority of Germans, according to a poll commissioned by the Bild am Sonntag, agree that the current system of deportation isn’t working. The Emnid poll found that more than 80 percent of people think the authorities are “not handling” the problem.

But there is no consensus on how things should be changed, or even on basic facts about the deportation process in Germany.

Deportation facts

The system that many say needs an overhaul currently works like this:

If an application for asylum is rejected, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees issues a refusal notice and a deportation notice. The refusal notice says you have to leave within a certain time and warns that police will deport you if you don’t comply.

However, everyone has the right to appeal the refusal and postpone the deportation. There are several opportunities to appeal in the courts. The first appeal is through the administrative court. If this fails, you can take the case to a higher administrative court, and then in rare cases, to the Federal Administrative Court. After this, you can submit a complaint to the Federal Constitutional Court. If you believe that a deportation decision is violating your human rights, it is possible to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Even if you do not appeal a rejection, deportation can only take place if it is “practically possible and compatible with the law.” If deportation is not possible due to legal or medical reasons, the Migration Office can grant a tolerated residence permit. Currently, nearly 200,000 people in Germany hold a tolerated stay. Almost half of them have been tolerated for at least ten years.

If the situation in the country of origin changes and there is new evidence in a case, there is an option to re-apply for what is called a “subsequent asylum application”.

Some people are detained for up to 18 months to facilitate and ensure their deportation. Many German states have “return centers,” where people are taken who can’t or won’t prove their identity.

In 2017, Germany deported 23,966 people, fewer than the previous year. Most were returned to Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Around 2,300 were forcibly sent to Italy.

People departing voluntarily having received orders to leave the country

Slow procedures blamed

Some politicians say the biggest problem is that asylum and deportation procedures take too long. The hold-ups are partly due to the huge burden on the system – Germany processes more asylum applications than all other EU states combined, according to the EU’s statistics office, Eurostat. As well, rejected asylum seekers in Germany almost always challenge the decision in court using the procedures explained above. In 2017, more than 328,000 people who had been denied asylum appealed.

But some say the problems are caused by people who are actively “sabotaging” efforts to deport people. Alexander Dobrindt, the head of the Bundestag group of CSU parliamentarians, has described an “aggressive anti-deportation industry” in Germany.

Immigration lawyers reject the suggestion that they are holding up processes for potential financial gain. The German Bar Association (BRAK) insists that under the Constitution, people have a right to appeal asylum decisions. Sometimes there are delays, but they are due to a lack of resources and the fault of politicians, not the lawyers who are defending refugees.

According to Alice Weidel, co-parliamentary chair of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the biggest opposition party in Parliament, the delays ought to be blamed on the asylum seekers themselves. “Chumminess among asylum seekers is increasing, as is the violent prevention of deportations – German law is being made impotent,” Weidel says.

Deported passport stamp

Lack of papers

One undisputed reason that rejected asylum seekers cannot be deported is that authorities are unable to obtain relevant travel documents from their countries of origin. According to the Funke Media Group, a report by the German Interior Ministry revealed that last year the number of failed asylum seekers and migrants who could not be deported because they lacked documents increased to 65,000, up from 38,000 in 2016.

According to a police union spokesperson, this is partly because more people are trying to disguise their identity to avoid the risk of being deported. Ernst Walter, chair of the union, told DW, “it can’t be that someone who throws away his passport and conceals his identity gets right of residence while the one who was honest is deported.”

But there are other reasons for the increase in the number of people lacking travel documents. Papers are sometimes taken by smugglers, or lost or destroyed during the journey. In these cases, German authorities can only carry out deportations with the cooperation of the countries to which they are to be returned. According to the Interior Ministry report, this cooperation is often hard to obtain, especially from authorities in India and Pakistan.

Fixing the problem

International law states that your country of origin cannot reject you if you want to return. The German Office for Migration and Refugees, BAMF, says states are obliged to readmit their own nationals, and German authorities are busy negotiating re-admissions agreements and protocols with countries of origin.

As a way to facilitate more deportations, there have been calls for those agreements to ensure future development aid from Germany is dependent on other countries’ willingness to, as Bavaria’s interior minister Joachim Herrmann put it, cooperate in asylum matters.

This may already be happening, however. According to Amnesty International, there is “credible evidence” that Afghanistan has been pressured to accept forced returns in exchange for aid from the EU, despite a worsening security situation.

Gerald Knaus, a migration expert credited as the brains behind the EU-Turkey deal, thinks cooperation is crucial, but tying aid to deportation agreements is an ineffective strategy. Instead, on German public television (ZDF), Knaus said decisions on asylum were much too slow in Germany, and it should look to the Netherlands, where asylum claims – including appeals – are commonly processed within six weeks.

The overhaul of the system to be introduced in Germany is meant to bring faster, “streamlined” procedures with one-stop asylum processing and deportation facilities known as "Anchor Centers". 

Debate a "red herring"

But refugee advocates as well as political parties on the left remain strongly opposed to the government's plans, which they say are counterproductive and unlikely to speed up processes.

The Deputy Director of the refugee rights organization Pro Asyl, Bernd Mesovic, told InfoMigrants that the debate was a distraction and reflected a concerted push to the right ahead of elections in Bavaria.

While Ulla Jelpke, a member of the Bundestag from the left-wing party, Die Linke, called for "a stop to the rhetoric of a crackdown on deportation."

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