BERLIN — Try as she might, Angela Merkel can’t escape the refugee crisis.
The migration question, which loomed large in Germany’s fall election, now threatens to dash her efforts to form a new government.
Germany’s future course on refugees quickly emerged as one of the most contentious in ongoing exploratory coalition talks between Merkel’s conservatives, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens. Last week, a top conservative negotiator even accused the Greens, who advocate less stringent asylum and refugee policies, of trying “to provoke the collapse” of the talks over the issue.
While there’s no shortage of policy disagreements between the three parties, from defense spending to agricultural policy, the differences between the Greens and the two center-right parties on migration may be unbridgeable.
“The question of whether it’s going to be possible to form a government remains wide open,” Alexander Dobrindt, a negotiator for the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), said on Saturday.
If they don’t find a solution in the coming days, Germany could be headed for a new election. That’s because the Greens have scheduled a party congress for November 25 to vote on whether to push forward with formal coalition talks. If the preliminary talks don’t result in substantial progress, a vote may not even be necessary.
Much of the debate on migrants has focused on setting a formal cap and the conditions for reuniting families. The divide between the parties isn’t just about letting new refugees in, however. What could turn out to be an even bigger problem surrounds the question of sending people back.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) speaks with the co-leaders of the Germany Greens Party Cem Özdemir (2nd L) and Katrin Goering-Eckardt (2nd R) and Wolfgang Kubicki (L), FDP’s vice chairman in Berlin on October 20, 2017 | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
In late October, a plane carrying 14 denied asylum seekers left Leipzig for Afghanistan. Berlin suspended the flights earlier this year after a massive truck bomb in Kabul killed more than 150 people in May, but in September the government resumed the practice.
New figures published by the German government last week indicated that 158,000 people denied asylum were still living in Germany. About 118,000 had received a delay (or a Duldung) on deportation notices for reasons such as illness or political instability back home — but 28,000 denied asylum seekers are counted in the new stats as potential “enforced deportations.”
Critics, led by the Greens, argue that Afghanistan isn’t safe enough for the government to send even criminal offenders back: Greens leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt called the practice “irresponsible,” saying Afghanistan “will always be unsafe.”
Members of Merkel’s government, meanwhile, have called for increased deportations, under pressure from their Bavarian sister party the CSU and from the rhetoric of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Peter Altmaier, who serves as Merkel’s chief of staff and acting finance minister, indicated Friday that the CDU intends to “intensify” its efforts to deport those rejected for asylum. The Free Democrats also support a tougher line.
Migrants and true crimes
The pressure on Merkel’s government to speed up deportations has been fueled by attention to the issue in German media — including some stories that experts and politicians say are overhyped.
Last week, German tabloid Bild printed a series of articles alleging the German government had lost track of 30,000 rejected asylum seekers. The newspaper urged its readers to call on Merkel and the German government to deal with the issue — and said it received more than 20,000 responses calling for the immediate deportation of all denied asylum seekers.
Fact-checkers have challenged the premise of the Bild piece, saying the numbers they cite include more than just asylum seekers; the figure can also include tourists on expired visas, for example. And politicians call it a stunt to influence the current political climate: Luise Amtsberg, the Greens’ spokeswoman on refugee issues, said Bild is “knowingly creating a false picture” and “trying to block and impair the coalition talks.”
Still, Bild’s campaign is “of course fueling this narrative of loss of control, that the state doesn’t control what’s going on,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “That’s very explosive for any government.”
In response to the articles, Altmaier told Bild that asylum seekers who have committed crimes should be deported “particularly quickly.” (Bild is published by Axel Springer, co-owner of POLITICO Europe.)
In addition, a number of high-profile crimes this year committed by denied asylum seekers give further ammunition to those hoping for more and faster deportations. In Berlin, a 60-year-old woman was found murdered in the city’s Tiergarten park — a crime for which authorities later arrested an 18-year-old man from Chechnya. The man should have been deported the previous year, local media reported at the time, but he was not deported because he was a minor and was serving time for theft. Shortly thereafter, a 34-year-old rejected asylum seeker from Nigeria was arrested for sexually assaulting a female jogger in the Bavarian city of Rosenheim.
“It’s really in light of the influx of refugees from 2015 that the German tendency to strengthen deportations and so on became much stronger” — Stephan Dünnwald, Bavarian Refugee Council
The debate over the government’s responsibility to deport rejected asylum seekers isn’t new. Since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, Merkel has been under pressure to tighten existing laws governing migration into the country. Talk of speeding up deportations further intensified after a December 2016 terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market killed 12 people and injured 53 others.
“It’s really in light of the influx of refugees from 2015 that the German tendency to strengthen deportations and so on became much stronger,” said Stephan Dünnwald, who works for the Bavarian Refugee Council. “And it became much more popular to talk about it.”
At the time, Merkel and her Christian Democrats called for tougher laws governing the process, including a move to designate three North African countries — Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria — “safe countries of origin,” meaning Germany could more easily reject asylum applications from these countries as without merit. A law to this effect had passed the lower house of Germany’s parliament earlier in 2016, but was rejected by the upper house of parliament, where the Greens have proportionally higher representation.
‘Difficulty in details’
Though deportations are carried out by each of Germany’s individual states (or Bundesländer), the federal government has a strong voice in shaping policy.
The Greens’ Amtsberg said it’s “currently very difficult to mediate” on the issue because the Greens are directly at odds with the other three parties over deporting criminal offenders to Afghanistan — a move on their part she says is more about politics than good policy.
“Their foreign policy is motivated by internal politics,” she said. “And in our opinion that’s wrong.”
And in his Friday interview with Bild, the CDU’s Altmaier acknowledged that it will be difficult for the four would-be coalition partners to find agreement on the issue of deportations.
“In principle we agree: No one wants to change the fundamental right to asylum,” Altmaier said. “But in the details, it will be difficult.”