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Germany

In the vote on safe countries, take nothing for granted

Should Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia be made safe countries of origin? Angela Merkel and her grand coalition say yes. But the Greens and the countries themselves are pushing back ahead of Friday’s vote in the Bundesrat.

If you look at the month of May, then the German government is currently creating a law for 374 people. That's how many asylum seekers came to Germany last month from the Maghreb: 185 from Morocco, 134 from Algeria, and 55 from Tunisia. Hardly significant numbers. But the debate over the classification of the three countries as safe countries has a much longer history than that.

Attacks by North Africans

On New Year's Eve when hundreds of women were assaulted in the city of Cologne, many of the suspects were men of North African origin. The fact that many of those arrested were carrying papers confirming their status as refugees led to the conclusion that men from the Maghreb were abusing their status in Germany and committing crimes. In 2015, some 25,000 people came to Germany from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Only around 600 of them were granted asylum. At the same time, immigrants from the Maghreb countries were strongly represented in Germany's criminal statistics.

No systemic political persecution

For the government, the numbers confirm the impression gained by Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière during a trip to the region at the beginning of March: People may well leave the Maghreb because they see no future there for themselves. But they are not subject to systemic political persecution, or the kind of inhumane treatment that would justify the granting of asylum.

This is why the German government sponsored a law to declare the three North African countries as safe havens, or safe countries of origin, making it easier to reject applications for asylum.

In the case of the Western Balkan states, the numbers of people seeking asylum in Germany after a similar law was passed decreased dramatically.

Opposition from human rights groups and Greens

When the status of the Balkan states was put to a vote in 2014, a political majority supported the change. Even the Greens supported the move. This time, things are different. The Maghreb is not the Balkans, say the Greens.

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Pro Asyl, operate on the assumption that these countries practice torture, and that there is persecution of both opposition members and homosexuals. Minister De Maizière insists that each individual case will continue to be examined, but the Greens are standing firm.

Complicated power structures at the state level

The government could shrug off the Greens' problems, if it weren't for the vote at the in the Bundesrat, or Upper House of Parliament, which must give its approval. That's because the Greens are currently represented in 10 out of 16 state governments. In those states where they also govern, they are trying to prevent the law from passing. Only in Baden-Württemberg is that less likely to happen, as the Green State Premier Winfried Kretschmann will not want to risk alienating his coalition partners so early into their shared term. Despite this, a yes vote from Baden-Württemberg is still too little for a majority in the Bundesrat.

Flüchtlinge aus Nordafrika in Deutschland

Magreb asylum-seekers line up at a reception center cafeteria in Bavaria

Signal factor

Looking solely at the numbers, the outcome could almost not matter to the government. There are hardly any migrants from Northern Africa arriving in Germany at the moment, and the few cases that do exist could be quickly processed using the current laws. Many observers say that the government simply wants to show that it is taking action after the attacks in Cologne.

But the truth is, no one can accurately predict whether the number of migrants from the Maghreb will remain low, not to mention what signal a defeat of the motion would send. In government circles, the answers range from: "The right-wing, anti-immigrant AfD would say that the government isn't even capable of getting this done," to "if we say that these countries are not safe, then that really will start a wave of people coming to us with hopes of remaining here."

A further point has to do with Germany's relations to the Maghreb countries. Berlin wants Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to cooperate better on deportations. As a reward for their cooperation, Germany has promised to declare them safe countries of origin.

Compromise in sight

All of this could be prevented if the grand coalition partners, the CDU/CSU and SPD, could reach an agreement with the Greens.

One idea is to offer extra protection to "vulnerable persons" such as journalists, homosexuals and opposition members. And since many are uncomfortable with declaring a country such as Algeria "safe," a compromise solution could help put the focus more strongly on the currently small likelihood of being granted asylum.

The government could, for example, agree that applications from countries with acceptance rates below a certain value, say 5 percent, will automatically be fast tracked. In this way, an important goal of the law would be reached, without absolving problematic countries of their responsibilities too soon.

The Greens could likely live with such a model, especially given that it originated from Robert Habeck, deputy state premier of Schleswig-Holstein and a Green party member.

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