A record 55,000 migrants to Germany left the country voluntarily in 2016, according to data from the Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). The large amount of voluntary departures was more than twice the amount that were deported by German authorities.
The news comes during the ongoing Syrian war that spurred the arrival of more than one million refugees and asylum seekers to Germany during the past two years. Over the last several months, anti-immigration sentiments have reached a high in that country, with widespread criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door" policy for refugees that initially contributed to the influx. But in recent months, attempts to stem the flow of refugees into the European Union have attracted considerable international attention, even as the numbers of asylum seekers to Germany begin to fall.
While the Syrian refugee crisis is far from over, the news of an increase in voluntary deportations may be indicative of a shift in how asylum seekers are handled in Germany, with financial programs that incentivize potential migrants to return to their countries of origin. In light of the anti-immigration attitudes continuing to build momentum across the continent, it is also possible that asylum seekers may wish to try to build their futures elsewhere as Europe looks for ways to limit the numbers of migrants.
Many critics of Chancellor Merkel's government continue to call for more deportations and tighter border security in the country despite fewer people seeking asylum compared with 2015. But terrorist attacks in Europe, like the one against a Berlin Christmas market, have continued to fuel a growing distrust of migrants in Germany, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:
The attack has renewed populist calls against migrants and Ms. Merkel, whose migrant policy has allowed more than one million migrants into Germany in the past two years.
Anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, which has won support recently as Merkel’s own popularity has waned, said Tuesday that Germany is no longer safe.
"Under the cloak of helping people Merkel has completely surrendered our domestic security," wrote Frauke Petry, the party's co-chairwoman.
But while distrust of refugees continues to climb, German magazine Süddeutsche Zeitung released BAMF data on Wednesday that indicated that more asylum seekers are choosing to leave than at any time during the refugee crisis, which was later confirmed by BAMF officials.
According to the data, 25,000 seekers were deported in 2016 compared to the voluntary exit of 55,000. In 2015, by comparison, only 37,220 left voluntarily compared to 20,914 deportations.
Anti-immigration critics will likely remain unimpressed by these figures. More than 890,000 asylum seekers entered the country last year alone, and many of them manage to remain in the country despite official asylum refusals. Expensive deportations of large numbers of immigrants have made it difficult for the German government to remove migrants with criminal histories from the country, including Anis Amri, the man suspected of committing the Berlin Christmas market attack. Mr. Amri was not deported from the country due to a lack of proper documentation from his home country, Tunisia, a fact which has attracted a louder call to step up deportation procedures against other disqualified asylum seekers.
Of the 55,000 immigrants who left Germany voluntarily this year, the largest category consisted 15,000 Albanians who returned to Eastern Europe. About 5,000 immigrants each from Serbia, Iraq, and Kosovo, also returned to their countries of origin.
Part of the reason for the mass voluntary exit from Germany is the financial incentives provided to individuals and families who choose to leave before an asylum claim is rejected. A family of five, for instance, could receive 4,200 euros, or about $4,383, to return home. In addition to these individual sums of money, Germany is also set to spend $155 million in development aid for countries that are home to many of the migrants who seek asylum in Germany, according to the Washington Post. It is hoped that by revitalizing the local economies of these areas, there will be less reason for immigrants to come to Germany in the first place.