When the first aeroplane carrying unsuccessful Tunisian asylum seekers took off from Leipzig in April last year, the German authorities believed they were close to resolving a key point of controversy.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had recently reached agreement with the Tunisian government on returning rejected Tunisians ineligible for asylum on special chartered flights, each carrying 25 at most.
But by the end of the year there had been just five further flights, returning an average of 12 people each.
German migration authorities rejected 8,363 asylum applications from North Africa in the period from January-November last year. Over that period, just 368 people were returned to their countries of origin.
The Interior Ministry said that deportations were often not implemented. Of more than half a million rejected asylum seekers, only 52,000 were subject to deportation.
The issue is increasingly controversial in Germany, given the huge numbers of migrants that arrived last year and the isolated acts of extremism that culminated in the Berlin truck attack on December 19, in which 12 were killed and more than 50 injured.
Scores of sexual assaults in Cologne and other cities during 2015-16 New Year’s Eve celebrations, which authorities said were carried out mainly by North Africans, also put pressure on the government to speed up deportations.
But most rejected asylum seekers are granted temporary permission to stay for health reasons; because the country of origin refuses to take them; or because their documents are not in order.
According to the German authorities, the last named is the main reason.
This was the case with Anis Amri, the Tunisian man who carried out the Christmas market attack. Prior to the deadly attack, Tunisia had failed to issue the necessary documents for him to be returned.
But Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told dpa that the agreed processes were being adhered to. Cooperation was “proceeding in an ideal way,” he said.
De Maiziere visited North Africa at the beginning of last year, taking in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, to hold talks on the repatriation of rejected asylum-seekers.
In an official letter to the interior ministers of the 16 German states, De Maiziere said that the approximately 10,000 Moroccans, 13,000 Algerians and 2,500 Tunisians who had previously arrived in Germany “for the most part have no prospect of being allowed to stay.”
But identification issues often obstruct the process. Migrants usually destroy their passports and insist they are Syrians, according to an official at the Moroccan Interior Ministry, who declined to provide his name.
He added that there had been an exchange of information with the German authorities on Moroccans illegally living in Germany over recent months, and that repatriations could now be implemented in stages.
But the procedure is complex.
Martin Zillinger, an ethnologist and migration researcher at the University of Cologne, believes there are North African officials “who have little interest – perhaps for reasons of solidarity with the migrants – to work particularly quickly.”
And he adds that a situation has been created in Germany and the European Union “where we thwart the options for repatriation by compelling people to disappear into a life of illegality.”
Government ministers are talking about cutting aid to countries that refuse to take their nationals back.
But North African countries also feel that they have been left in the lurch. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri complained in an interview with dpa of a lack of support from EU countries.
Just 18 Egyptians have been repatriated of the 1,373 not granted asylum, according to Shukri, who insists Egypt is cooperating. “As long as these people are willing to return of their own accord, we will accept them,” the minister says.
In Tunisia, attitudes are divided, and there have been street protests against the deportations. Tunisians are fearful that Islamic State fighters could return from the war zones where the militia is involved – Tunisians make up a disproportionate number of the fighters.
And many are disinclined to take back criminals – like those who are no longer welcome in Germany after the New Year’s Eve attacks.