If 2015 was the year in which Germany opened its doors to refugees, 2016 was when the country pondered how to close them. Although the influx of refugees peaked more than a year ago, attacks like the one in Berlin on Dec. 19 have led to demands that Germany refuse entry to individuals without passports and step up deportations of criminals and terrorism suspects.
Authorities in Germany hope that another trend could have a bigger impact in the short run: migrants being fed up with the country or fearing deportation who decide to go back. More than twice as many migrants departed Germany voluntarily this year than were deported.
|© DANIEL ROLAND/AFP via Getty Images An airplane of Meridiana airline, chartered to deport refugees back to Afghanistan prepares to take off at the airport in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on December 14, 2016.|
Germany offers individuals or families willing to return to their countries of origin financial benefits that can amount to several thousands of euros, including travel costs and a so-called start-up grants. Promoted as an alternative to conventional development aid, such payments are supposed to help vitalize local economies and to prevent returnees and others from ending up fleeing to Europe again.
The German government will spend more than $155 million on additional development aid projects over the next three years in countries that many migrants leave to go to Germany. Among the nations included are Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Kosovo, Serbia and Albania, which are generally considered “safe” by German authorities.
Voluntary departures are unlikely to solve Germany's lagging efforts to deport more migrants, however. Out of the almost 900,000 people who entered last year alone, many remain in the country despite having been refused asylum.
German authorities say that deportations are expensive and difficult to organize. Migrants are often arrested at night and later put on planes to their home countries.
Pressure is on the rise to reform that process as more details are emerging about efforts to deport Anis Amri, who killed 12 people in Berlin's Christmas market attack last week. He was fatally shot by a police officer in Italy as he fled.
Despite a criminal past, the 24-year-old could not be deported to his home country of Tunisia for months, because he lacked documents the North African nation had failed to provide, according to German media reports. He did flee Germany eventually — after his attack.
More than 50,000 migrants left Germany in 2016, says report
About 55,000 migrants who were not eligible for asylum or were refused it left Germany voluntarily between January and November 2016, up by 20,000 from the number who left voluntarily in 2015, a newspaper reported yesterday.
Germany has toughened its stance in recent months, prompted by concerns about security and integration after admitting more than 1.1 million migrants since early 2015.
Last week a failed asylum seeker who had sworn allegiance to Islamic State killed 12 people when he rammed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, fuelling growing criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy.
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The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper quoted government data showing the number who returned to their homes in the first 11 months of the year. Most returned to Albania, Serbia, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iran, the newspaper said. Those leaving are eligible for one-off support of up to €3,000 (£2,550).
German security officials previously told Reuters that the number of those deported after their asylum requests were rejected rose to almost 23,800 from January to November – up from almost 20,900 in all of 2015.
There has also been a rise in the number of refugees turned away at the borders. A report by the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung daily said police had turned back 19,720 refugees in the first 11 months – up from 8,913 in all of 2015. Most were from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. They had been registered in other EU countries.
As public support for her pro-refugee policies wanes ahead of September’s federal election, Merkel has said it is vital to focus resources on those fleeing war, and to keep public support by deporting foreigners to countries where there is no persecution.
A string of attacks and security alerts involving refugees and migrants this year has boosted support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, which could damage Merkel’s re-election hopes.