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German Cabinet declares Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria 'safe'

Timothy Jones | Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
July 18, 2018

Germany's Cabinet wants to add three Maghreb states and Georgia to a list of "safe countries of origin." But will the change pass Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, where it failed last year?

Refugees from Maghreb states
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The German government will put forward legislation declaring Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Georgia "safe countries of origin." The decision was reached after the weekly meeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet on Wednesday in Berlin.

If enacted, the change in the law would make it easier for Germany to turn back people from and deport them back to the countries in question, which have been frequently accused of human-rights violations.

"This means that people from these safe countries cannot call upon a right to asylum (in Germany)," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters, adding that the proposed legislation was "an important contribution" to Germany's attempts to balance humanitarian concerns with a desire for "order."

Seehofer said that asylum applicants from the countries concerned had a success rate of less than five percent. But he also said that individual appeals to the rules would be possible and that people from the four countries in question who were already studying or working legally in Germany would be exempt from deportations.

The government initiative comes amidst discussions surrounding the deportation of an alleged former bodyguard of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to Tunisia. But German conservatives say that the proposed legislation is also needed to combat crime.

"The classification of these states is long overdue," said the deputy chairman of the conservative CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Stephan Harbarth, in a statement. "Unfortunately it's also true that migrants from these countries are disproportionately involved in criminal acts."

The bill is part of Seehofer's controversial "migration master plan." But there is no guarantee that it will ever become law.

Map showing "safe countries of origin," according to Germany

Parliamentary approval a hurdle

Germany's 16 federal states, and not the federal government, are responsible for carrying out deportations. So the proposed legislation must be approved not only by the Bundestag, where the government has a majority, by the upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, where it does not.

As Seehofer acknowledged, that leaves the government dependent on opposition parties like the Greens.

"No one has the majority — we need the votes of two states with Greens in the government," Seehofer said, adding that it was "premature" to speculate about "the behavior of individual states."

Harbath said that the legislative change should not "once again" founder on the opposition of the Greens in the Bundesrat, as happened last year. But approval remains unlikely, as a majority of states still have the Greens in their governments. 

Living with the threat of deportation

On Wednesday, Green Co-Leader Robert Habeck told a consortium of German newspapers that "so-called safe countries of origin do not solve any problems."

"If it's about returning people from the Maghreb states, you need functioning return agreements. If it's about fighting criminality in Germany, you need a well-equipped police force," he said. "And it is still a fact that journalists, minorities and homosexuals are not safe from persecution and arrest in the Maghreb states," Habeck added.

The business-friendly Free Democratic Party has said it supports the proposed legislation. But refugee advocacy groups are highly critical, with the NGO Pro Asyl characterizing the rule change as an example of "frantic political activism."

Horst Seehofer
Interior Minister Seehofer has been under fire of lateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

SPD: Seehofer should do more

But this was not the feisty Horst Seehofer who last month provoked a crisis by insisting over Merkel's opposition that Bavaria be allowed to reject migrants at its Austrian border.  That conflict, which threatened to bring down the government, and other verbal missteps have taken a clear toll on him.

And in a subtle move to increase pressure on Seehofer, the conservatives' coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), have called for an expansion of his duties.

"Mr. Seehofer should use Paragraph 58 (of Germany's Residency Law) and assume responsibility in conjunction with the federal states for the approximately 100 potentially dangerous foreigners who are required to leave," SPD Domestic Affairs Spokesman Burkhard Lischka told "Welt" newspaper. "Then we'd have a clear situation with clear duties."

Paragraph 58a stipulates that that the interior minister can assume such a responsibility if it's deemed in the "especial interest" of the federal government.

"If the interior minister is so concerned with deporting Islamists who pose a threat, he should take it into his own hands," Lischka's SPD colleague Lars Castellucci told "Welt." "For that we don't even need to change any laws."

Read more: German churches preventing deportations


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