Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet on Wednesday approved a package of measures that will accelerate the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers while making it easier for security forces to track those awaiting a decision on their application for asylum.
The new 15-point plan will allow security forces to check the cellphone data of new arrivals, while those who have been rejected may be kept in custody for up to 10 days to prevent them from absconding (current rules limit this period to four days). Rules on surveillance of asylum-seekers will also be eased to allow those under suspicion to be watched more easily, and deportations will be carried out directly from initial reception centers wherever possible.
This last measure could also require asylum seekers to remain in government shelters for longer.
Peter Altmaier, the chancellor's chief of staff and the government's coordinator for refugee affairs, said over the weekend that he expects Germany to deport a record number of people in 2017. But there is still some debate overwhich countries people can be sent toif their asylum applications are rejected, with many questioning the return of migrants to Afghanistan. A group of 50 people is set to be flown to Afghanistan from Munich later on Wednesday.
The Afghanistan question
Germany's regional governments, responsible for implementing deportation orders, have proved divided on the issue of deportations to Afghanistan. While the interior ministers of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saxony-Anhalt defended the plans, arguing that it was not up to state governments to overturn asylum decisions made by the appropriate authorities, members of the Berlin state government said it was unethical to deport people back to Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the authorities in Berlin underlined that there was no blanket ban on deporting people to any country - Afghan asylum seekers, like everyone else, are subject to an individual assessment.
Schleswig-Holstein, meanwhile, has imposed a three-month moratorium on deportations to Afghanistan. State Premier Torsten Albig said he would lobby his counterparts to do the same, and pointed out that some 3,500 children were injured or killed in the country in 2016.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, whose department was instrumental in drawing up the measures, said he expected the German parliament to pass them into law "quickly." He also underlined that Germany's refugee policy was always two-fold: integrating those who need help while deporting those whose applications had been rejected.
Wednesday's decision effectively approved a series of agreements made jointly by leaders of Germany's federal and state governments two weeks ago.
The package was harshly criticized by refugee rights' organizations. Pro Asyl called the new legislation a "brutalization of the deportation process."
"The agreed package of measures for tougher deportation policies is a program that will deprive asylum-seekers of hope for protection in Germany and is aimed at discouraging them," the organization said in a statement.
A group of 20 other charities issued a joint statement criticizing the government's new package - especially its potential effect on children, who could be forced to stay longer in refugee shelters, and be kept out of schools.
Germany's main opposition party, the socialist Left party, also condemned the government plans.
"Cellphones and computers belong to a particularly protected area of privacy," party leader Katja Kipping told the DPA news agency. The government's plan amounted to "sacrificing basic rights on the altar of domestic security."