Germany Is Getting Deportations Wrong

(Bloomberg) -- Germany has a problem with migrants who have been denied asylum. Many of them don’t want to leave, and getting them to go is far from easy. 

Last week, police in Ellwangen in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg attempted to pick up a 23-year-old Togolese man at a refugee hostel to deport him to Italy, the country where he first crossed the border into the European Union. About 150 other Africans at the hostel wouldn’t allow it. They heavily outnumbered the 24 officers, and forced them to hand over the keys to the man’s handcuffs. The police had to retreat. They returned in force three days later and took the Togolese man away. Twenty-seven of the hostel residents are being held for rioting.

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The story made national headlines, and right-wing opposition parties latched onto the initial retreat of the police as evidence of the weakness of the German state in the face of the immigrant threat. Joerg Meuthen of the far-right Alternative for Germany party talked of a “capitulation,” and Christian Lindner, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, spoke of “law-free zones.” It doesn’t much matter that the police didn’t actually give up and that the riot was put down. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose views on immigrants are far to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, called the incident “a slap in the face of law-abiding people” and accused the Togolese man’s defenders of “trampling” on German hospitality.

The government’s idea of a response, pushed eagerly by Seehofer, is to set up “anchor centers” in which all newly arriving asylum applicants would be housed while their applications are processed. Those denied would be deported. Seehofer claims the centers would even be good for the asylum seekers because the program would somehow speed the processing.

It’s clear why some sort of solution is needed. For 2016 and 2017, 406,153 people were denied asylum in Germany. In the same two years, only 49,300 people were deported or left “voluntarily” under pressure from authorities. Many of the unsuccessful asylum seekers appeal the denials in the courts and remain in Germany while the legal wheels grind. One famous case involves a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, whom Germany has been trying to deport to Tunisia since 2006. The courts have refused to allow it because there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be tortured upon arrival. Meanwhile, the man is watched by domestic intelligence as a potential terrorist and has been receiving social aid.

It’s clear the system isn’t working too well.

This puts pressure on the government to assert its power. But “anchor camps” aren’t the answer. Everywhere the refugee detention centers exist in Europe, from Hungary (where all asylum seekers are channeled into them) to the U.K. (where about half of potential refugees are placed in them), they are a spot on the government’s human rights record. Even where living conditions are adequate, immigrants spend months with nothing to do, unsure whether they should prepare to stay or go, isolated from the receiving society and unable to start adapting.

These are breeding grounds for hostility, and, given Europe’s transparent internal borders, that’s a threat. Last year, Germany deported 7,102 people to the EU countries where the asylum seekers had entered the union. Sometimes they come back. Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, had spent time in such a facility in Italy and then served time for crimes committed there. After the attack, he traveled by train to Italy, where, more or less by accident, he was shot by a police officer.

Because of the ill feelings they breed, the detention centers might easily create more incidents like the one in Ellwangen, too.

The huge difference between the number of asylum denials and the number of deportations requires out-of-the-box thinking about the immigration system as a whole.

The system might need radical simplification, with the citizens of a short list of war-torn nations and dictatorships automatically receiving protection. Everyone without papers or from countries not on the list should see a clear path to residency, with a number of checkpoints along the way: Language proficiency exams, tests on cultural norms, the recognition of professional qualifications, a deadline for getting a job, and a cut-off date for social assistance. Failure at any of these stages should mean the termination of temporary residence and either a voluntary departure or deportation. Any immigrant on this program (but not a qualified refugee) should know that being convicted of a crime means automatic deportation to the country of origin.

This, of course, is only an example of the kind of system a country, such as Germany, that needs a shot in the arm for its declining population growth could institute. But in any case, the system shouldn’t waste time on checking asylum seekers’ stories and then on years of appeals. It should concentrate on unconditionally helping people from clearly dangerous countries such as Syria — and demand integration efforts from the rest, while providing the means for that integration.

No country has tried to do something like that yet. I wish Germany could get up the courage to be the first — and give up trying to get tougher in implementing dysfunctional rules.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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