Angela Merkel wants to encourage more Tunisians seeking asylum to leave Germany of their own free will and to deport failed applicants faster. It's all part of a push to lower the overall number of migrants in the country ahead of federal elections in September.
In her meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, the chancellor spoke of financial support and educational programs for Tunisian asylum seekers who volunteer to return home and pledged investment in programs to improve the prospects of young Tunisians in their own country. But she also emphasized the need to speed up deportations.
"We must make it clear that whoever does not choose to return voluntarily will have to be returned involuntarily," Ms. Merkel said, adding that this process “must be faster."
Deporting failed Tunisian asylum seekers is a particularly sensitive topic in Germany, after Anis Amri, a Tunisian national, plowed a truck into a busy Berlin Christmas market in December, killing 12 people and seriously injuring dozens more. Amri was a rejected asylum seeker whose return to Tunisia was delayed because of missing papers.
Mr. Chahed will meet Wednesday with German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to discuss further details of voluntary return support.
When the two leaders faced the media, Ms. Merkel diplomatically avoided talk of refugee holding camps, a term that had been floating around in public ahead of their talks.
We must make it clear that whoever does not choose to return voluntarily will have to be returned involuntarily. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
“We didn’t speak about centers where refugees can stay,” Ms. Merkel said, noting that Tunisia was not a “transit land.”
At their summit last month, European Union leaders backed the creation of such holding camps in neighboring Libya whose largely lawless coast is a source of uncontrolled migration. Many migrants are striking off from the chaotic country, which has lacked a functioning national government since the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011.
Last year, the E.U. also reached an agreement to provide financial support to Turkey for taking back migrants who cross the Aegis sea from there to Greece.
Ms. Merkel acknowledged that only 1 percent of the migrants arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean were from Tunisia. About 1,500 failed Tunisian asylum applicants, she added, are due to leave Germany this year, after only 116 left last year. More than 30,000 Tunisians are currently in the country seeking asylum.
Ahead of talks with the German leader, Mr. Chahed told Tuesday’s issue of the Bild newspaper that his country lacked the capacity to host a refugee holding facility. In the same interview, he also denied his country had any responsibility for the Christmas market terrorist attack.
“Let me make one thing clear – the Tunisian authorities did not commit a single error,” Mr. Chahed said. “Amri was not a terrorist when he left Tunisia in 2011, nor did he show any signs of radicalization.”
The failure of German authorities to keep a closer eye on Amri, who had been suspected of radicalization in Germany, has been a controversial topic in the country. German authorities had rejected Amri’s request for asylum last June but were unable to deport him for lack of papers. Tunisian authorities issued a replacement passport on the day of the attack.
Ms. Merkel emphasized the need to halt human traffickers who put the lives of refugees at risk. “We need to fight illegal immigration and those who capitalize on it,” she said, adding that more than 4,600 died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2016 alone.
While most refugees from Syria qualify for asylum, most from North African countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco do not, because their counties are considered politically stable.
Ms. Merkel has pushed hard to have German put these three countries on its list of so-called safe countries of origin, to further raise the bar for asylum requests. The effort comes as Ms. Merkel has faced a challenge from the right of her party to do more to tackle the number of refugees arriving in Germany.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]