Under pressure for pro-migrant policies, German government pushes deportations

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized at home for her 'open door' policy for refugees. But with elections looming on the horizon, Merkel's administration is announcing plans to step up deportations and clear out a large backlog of asylum cases.

Matthias Schrader/ AP
German chancellor and head of the German Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, arrives for a party meeting in Munich, Germany, on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. Merkel is meeting her Bavarian conservative allies in a show of unity following a long-running argument over migrant policy, setting the scene for a joint campaign for German elections in September.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration is hoping to press forward in clearing out a backlog of some 435,000 asylum cases in the coming months, as the country gears up for elections in September.

Chancellor Merkel has come under increasing pressure over the past two years from voters looking for a harder stance against refugees coming into the country, and for tougher policies aimed at deporting failed asylum seekers. The political pressure has only grown since Anis Amri, a failed asylum seeker from Tunisia, rammed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in a terrorist attack last December.

Jutta Cordt, the new head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), told the German newspaper Handelsblatt that her top priorities included accelerating the asylum application process and stepping up the deportations of failed applicants. She also said that her agency had been granted an extra 40 million euros ($42.57 million) for the explicit purpose of repatriation processing.

"We carried over 435,000 cases into the new year and we want to have dealt with those this spring," Ms. Cordt said in the interview.

Cordt also said in a separate interview that local authorities should take fingerprints of migrants in order to better track them and avoid multiple asylum applications. BAMF has said that it already has biometric data on all migrants in the country, as migrants are fingerprinted three times: if they arrive at the border without a passport, at an intake center, and again when they file an asylum application.

Similar themes were echoed by Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who called Thursday for more federal government involvement in the process of repatriation, proposing "exit centers" near airports where failed asylum seekers could be taken before deportation in order to make the situation more "orderly" and to keep migrants from "evad[ing] deportation at the last minute." Deportations are currently handled by Germany's 16 state governments.

The intensified emphasis on repatriation comes as a wave of anti-immigration parties continue to increase in popularity across Europe, with far-right populist leaders improving in polls throughout the European Union. For centrist and internationalist leaders like Merkel, these gains for the far right are particularly concerning, and have taken on new meaning after the US election. 

For many German voters, Merkel remains very popular. As Sara Miller Lana and Rachel Stern reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November:

For some there is simply no alternative: Many see  “Mutti,” or “Mummy,” as she has been nicknamed at home, as best able to handle the political storms rattling Europe, from immigration to Brexit. ...

That viewpoint is largely shared internationally, says Matthew Qvortrup, author of "Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader,” and a professor of political science at Coventry University in Britain. “For ordinary people, as well as for markets, having Angela Merkel as the beacon of stability is difficult to overestimate,” he says. While Germany has been reluctant in the postwar era to lead – and European nations have historically wanted Germany neutered as well – now he says many are vying for a “German Europe.”

“A German Europe is an Angela Merkel Europe, a Europe that respects dignity, human rights, in a realistic sort of way, and democracy,” he adds.

Yet many of Germany's right-leaning voters have begun to turn towards the euroskeptic and anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) as an antidote for the woes associated with more traditional, center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, to which Merkel belongs. In Germany, the surge towards the AfD has been fueled by fears over Merkel's 2015 "open door" policy for refugees, which oversaw an influx of more than a million refugees into the country over the past two years.

More recently, however, Merkel and other centrist European leaders have begun to adopt policies to appease voters who are attracted by the anti-immigration rhetoric associated with right-wing populism. In December, for example, Merkel called for a ban on full-face coverings worn by some Muslim women, a move that surprised many supporters of her relatively pro-migrant policies.

"The full veil is not appropriate here. It should be banned wherever it's legally possible," said Merkel at the time. "We don't want any parallel societies. Our law takes precedence before tribal rules, codes of honor and sharia."

The new push for repatriation may be another attempt to appease the far right ahead of the September election in order to hold the anti-establishment threat to the EU and centrist politics at bay. For BAMF, however, the push is also an opportunity to repair the asylum application process, making it more efficient and streamlined.

"If there is virtually no prospect for a migrant to stay here, it makes sense to push for an early repatriation and to encourage that financially," Cordt told Handelsblatt.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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