German states rebel against federal government over deportations | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.02.2017

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German states rebel against federal government over deportations

Angela Merkel's government has promised to send rejected asylum seekers home, but some local states aren't cooperating. Schleswig-Holstein, for example, has temporarily halted all deportations to Afghanistan.

Schleswig-Holstein will not be sending anyone back to Afghanistan for at least until May 31, the northern German state announced on Tuesday. Schleswig-Holstein's Social Democrat (SPD) Interior Minister Stefan Studt said that the state government was taking the step for "humanitarian reasons" because deportees weren't guaranteed "security and dignity" in Afghanistan. Some 700 Afghans with no right of residence currently reside in the northern German state.

Responsibility for deporting people whose applications for asylum have been rejected or have no right to reside in Germany rests with the country's 16 federal states, and Schleswig-Holstein's decision underscores the conflict between local and national authorities on the issue.

Earlier this month, conservative Chancellor Merkel told her Christian Democratic (CDU) colleagues at a party convention in the state that "We can't simply say we'll never again return anyone to Afghanistan." But Schleswig-Holstein is saying precisely that, at least for the next three-and-a-half months.

Merkel hoped that she had found a solution to the issue last week in Berlin when she reached agreement with the leaders of the federal states to speed up deportations. But particularly those states that are led by Social Democratic-Green coalitions are resisting enforcing the chancellor's promise to send more people back to their homelands.

The deportation issue is a contentious one in a year including a general election preceded by two important elections at the state level, and the situation at the moment appears to be a stalemate. So how can the impasse be broken, and who is likely to win out in the end?

Deutschland - Proteste in Köln und Düsseldorf gegen die Deportation nach Afghanistan

Activists have protested across Germany against deportations to Afghanistan

Carrots and sticks

Merkel's government, and in particular Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, isn't happy about Schleswig-Holstein's rebellion.

"Even before the hiatus was announced, the minister wrote to all the states, and Schleswig-Holstein in particular, and told them that he thought this was the wrong signal right now," Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said on Wednesday in Berlin. "The fact is that individual states can declare hiatuses in the short term. But if the duration is longer, they need the Interior Ministry to agree."

Others aren't content to wait until the Schleswig-Holstein moratorium expires. A number of conservatives, including Gerda Hasselfeldt, a high-ranking parliamentarian from the CDU's Bavarian sister party the CSU, have called for cuts in federal assistance to states that resist common deportation policies.

But experts say that sanctions are less likely than federal incentives to enhance cooperation.

"I don't think that's possible," Ulrich Karpen, Professor Emeritus of Law and deportation expert, told Deutsche Welle. "I do think the federal government could give some states additional funds depending on the number of people with no resident rights they deport. That would create positive incentives. Better carrots than sticks."

Infografik Deportations from Germany have risen sorted by German federal states ENG

More and more people are being deported from Germany

Other states of conflict

The issue is not just confined to Schleswig-Holstein. There have also been various degrees of reluctance or refusal to go along with the federal deportation plans in Berlin, Bremen, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia - other states led by the SPD and Greens. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, local Green Party spokeswoman for refugee issues, Monika Düker, resigned in December in protest at the state's deportation of people back to Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is not a safe country," Düker's successor Verena Schäffer told DW. "So it would a strong signal if all the Social Democratic state interior ministers would declare a three-month deportation moratorium. It's high time that de Maizière and (German Foreign Minister Sigmar) Gabriel reevaluate the security situation in Afghanistan and stop the deportations."

The issue is particularly sensitive because 2017 sees not only the German national election in September, but also state elections in both Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in May. So there's a lot at stake in local deportation policies.

Public sentiment favors deportations, including to countries some consider dangerous. In an opinion survey published by Focus magazine last week, nearly three-quarters of those asked said they thought convicted criminals and those deemed a threat to Germany should be sent back to Afghanistan. Twenty percent said those with rejected asylum applications should be as well.

Karpen said such pressure could force the social Democrats and Greens to adjust their position.

"The public mood is such that they actually can't afford to block deportations," Karpen explained. "I think if push comes to shove, the federal government will cite the wishes of voters. I can imagine that there'll be cooperation, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia."

North Rhine-Westphalia is particularly important because it is Germany's most populous state, and the election there on May 14 could set the tone for the national ballot on September 24.

Thomas de Maizière Innenminister

De Maizière would like to see a bigger federal role in deporting rejected asylum seekers

A tug-of-war for authority

Ultimately, de Maiziére and other conservative leaders in the national government would like to bring more central authority to bear on deportations. That could include the establishment of federal "departure centers" so that illegal aliens could be sent back to their countries of origin more quickly.

But even if the states do ultimately cooperate with federal authorities, they are unlikely to voluntarily cede one of their main powers.

"That would mean that the states would give up one of their assets, the authority over police coercion," Karpen explained. "That's hard to imagine."

Instead Karpen expects a federal-local compromise, in which states accept nominally logistical federal "help" while officially retaining the authority to carry out deportations. Still, the fundamental conflict is unlikely to disappear completely.

"I think it would be better for the federal government to carry out deportations," Karpen said. "Our residency law is a national one - with good reason. I think the government's suggestion isn't bad. But federal police won't carry our deportations. There will be a national coordination point. Again, it's a question of carrots and sticks."