European countries face difficulty repatriating asylum seekers

European governments decided that the solution lay in securing bilateral “migration deals”.
Tuesday 16/10/2018
An aerial photo shows a boat carrying migrants stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Salvamento Maritimo sea search and rescue agency that saw 157 migrants rescued on September 8, 2018. (AFP)
An aerial photo shows a boat carrying migrants stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Salvamento Maritimo sea search and rescue agency that saw 157 migrants rescued on September 8, 2018. (AFP)

LONDON - European capitals are seeking to step up deportations of failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin but major challenges remain, not least in securing agreement among themselves on how to go about this.

Germany has significantly increased its number of deportations to Maghreb countries since 2016, a study published by the German media outlet Bild indicated.

The number of deportations from Germany to Morocco rose from 61 in 2015 to 634 in 2017; from 57 to Algeria in 2015 to 504 in 2017; and from 17 to Tunisia in 2015 to 251 in 2017.

“We have managed to improve cooperation with these countries, which has resulted in a rise of repatriations,” a German Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The introduction of biometric identification by North African countries also enhanced the electronic exchange of information between Germany and Maghreb authorities.

Such deportations are expected to increase if the German government can push through parliament a bill that defines Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as “safe countries.” Passage of the bill has stalled in the upper house of the Bundestag.

Although many in Germany welcomed the increased rate of repatriations, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people seeking asylum in the country.

German Interior Ministry figures state that 186,644 people sought asylum in the country in 2017, 280,000 in 2016, and 890,000 in 2015. About 25% of asylum applications were rejected in 2016 and 38.5% in 2017, leaving tens of thousands of denied asylum seekers in limbo.

While cooperation between the European Union and Maghreb countries is improving, a broader EU plan to establish “regional disembarkation centres” in North Africa was roundly rejected.

After that, European governments decided that the solution lay in securing bilateral “migration deals,” such as those between Germany and North African countries. Many question whether this will be enough, particularly considering that European capitals are not in agreement on how repatriations should be handled.

Rome recently threatened to shut the country’s airports after the media reported that Germany planned to send charter flights of rejected asylum seekers to Italy.

The EU’s Dublin Regulation states that migrants are required to seek asylum in the first European country they reach. This places a major burden on “gateway” countries Italy, Spain and Greece. The migrants often travel to a different European country to claim asylum in a process known as “secondary movement.”

The issue of whether failed asylum seekers should be deported to the European country they first arrived in, which would have to handle their repatriation, or directly to their home countries remains a sticking point. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended applying the Dublin Regulation in 2015, although Berlin has subsequently toughened migration and asylum laws.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right, anti-migration League political party, warned that Rome would not accept the return of failed asylum seekers.

“If someone in Berlin or Brussels thinks of dropping dozens of migrants via non-authorised charter flights in Italy, they should know that there is not and there will be no airport available,” Salvini posted on Twitter.

“We will close the airports like we closed our ports,” he added, referring to Italy’s decision last summer to close its harbours to migrant rescue boats, another area in which European capitals are in conflict.

Italy’s government has been seeking to overhaul the Dublin regulations, arguing that the treaty places an unfair burden on gateway countries. Reports in Italy said up to 40,000 migrants could be repatriated from Germany to Italy.

Rome, Athens and other European capitals that want the Dublin Regulations reformed are seeking to build consensus on the issue but few say that the European Union is any closer to an agreement despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calling for a solution during his State of the Union speech in September.

“We cannot continue to squabble and find ad hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives,” he said. “Temporary solidarity is not good enough. We need lasting solidarity today and forever more.”