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.”
“We owe it to the victims, those who were affected and the entire population that we should now think over and adjust our entire migration and security policy” — Horst Seehofer
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.”