German rhetoric on Afghan migrants doesn't meet reality

The 75 people stuffed onto the small dinghy watched with horror as the water flowed in, eventually covering bags filled with clothes and mementos from the devastated homes they were fleeing. Jawad, a 25-year-old Afghan, prayed as he huddled with his wife, daughter and infant son.

"We were about to sink. All the children were crying," he says. "We were praying and crying. We were so hopeless."

And then came deliverance, in the form of a passing Greek patrol boat. Jawad and his family were taken to Greece and made the long overland journey to the country they hope to make their home — Germany.

Jawad recalls that day vividly when he hears the German government's new tough talk about sending Afghan refugees home. Tears well up as he contemplates the possibility that, after all that, Germany might deny them asylum.

"My family is worth it," he says quietly at the Berlin asylum-seekers' home. "We just need to be given the chance."

Like many Afghans seeking asylum in Germany, Jawad and his family find themselves caught in the middle of Chancellor Angela Merkel's new strategy to help the country manage its massive influx of migrants. He spoke on condition his last name not be used for fear of reprisals against relatives at home.

Those almost certain to be granted asylum, like Syrians and Iraqis, have their cases streamlined and get quicker access to integration courses. Migrants who are almost guaranteed a denial, like those from the Balkans, are being deported more quickly.

In the middle are the Afghans, who have a good chance of being allowed to stay but are being urged to return — or remain — home.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said that "people who come from Afghanistan cannot expect that they will be able to stay," and the government regularly emphasizes that fewer than 50 percent of Afghans' asylum applications are granted.

But the reality is different.

The German government factors in not only asylum rejections but also so-called "formal decisions" — where an applicant isn't refused on the merits of their case but for other reasons like because another European country is responsible, or because the migrant left Germany on their own or married a German. Looking at adjusted figures that remove the formal decisions, closer to 80 percent of Afghans are granted protection, according to ProAsyl, Germany's main refugee rights organization.

"Many of them have been in a panic even though we tried to convince them that their chances are relatively high here," said Bernd Mesovic, deputy head of ProAsyl. "What the German government is doing now is a policy of discouragement with its trash talk about Afghans."

This policy — trying to get migrants to voluntarily go home or, better yet, not come to Germany at all — is critical because deportations can take many months when factoring in the time it takes to apply for asylum, wait for a decision, and then go through the appeals process.

Deportations are rising — twice as many people were deported from Germany in 2015 as in 2014 — but it still only amounted to 20,888 people last year. Of those, most were sent back to the Balkans; only nine people were deported to Afghanistan in 2015, two to Iraq and nobody was deported to Syria.

The policy of discouragement, however, has met with better success.

In 2015, 37,220 people returned home voluntarily, primarily to the Balkans, while the flow of migrants from those nations has slowed to a trickle. In that year, Albania and Kosovo were in the top five countries of origin for migrants after Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the latest figures from April they're not even in the top 10.

For Afghans, however, the rhetoric seems to have had little effect. After committing thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of euros for more than a decade to help stabilize Afghanistan, Berlin maintains there are safe areas in the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer went so far as to say that "the Taliban's terrorist attacks are not directed at the Afghan people" but instead at Afghan security forces. But according to a U.N. report, 600 civilians were killed in Afghanistan's war in the first quarter of 2016 alone, and a further 1,343 wounded.

Jawad pointed to the massive bombing in his native Kabul just days before Schaefer's comments that killed more than 60 people and injured 350 others, primarily civilians.

"Since I was a little boy, the only thing I can remember is trouble and war," he said. "The Taliban have made life in Afghanistan terrible."

Meantime, even though new border controls in Europe mean the overall number of migrants is down drastically this year, Afghans in April remained the second-largest group arriving in Germany after Syrians.

Germany's 1.1 million arrivals in 2015 included 428,468 Syrians, 154,046 Afghans and 121,622 Iraqis, though the government acknowledges the system sometimes counts the same person more than once.

At the same time, the numbers for 2015 also understate new arrivals, because it can take a long time for people to apply for asylum. In total, 476,649 people applied. Syrians saw 96 percent of their asylum applications granted; Eritreans had 92 percent and Iraqis about 89 percent. At the other extreme, Serbia saw only 0.1 percent of its applications granted, Albania 0.2 percent and Kosovo 0.4 percent.

Since the official percentage of Afghans granted asylum in 2015 was only 47.6 percent, Afghans like Jawad have not qualified for fast-track acceptance into language courses and other integration classes. While his 7-year-old daughter is in a "welcome class" in a local school and is picking up the German language quickly, he and his wife are still waiting.

Mouaz Abdullah Ibrahim, a 50-year-old Iraqi who fled Baiji last year amid fierce fighting between government forces and Islamic State extremists, arrived in Germany about the same time as Jawad and lives in the same sprawling Wilmersdorf facility. His family has already started classes. His three eldest sons have even gotten work internships while his youngest is attending school.

"For us the system is OK here," he said. "We're certain that the German government will treat us well — if we didn't think that, we wouldn't have come."

Jawad said he doesn't mind waiting at the back of the line but going home is no option.

His family "prays every night to God to get the answer that we can stay here and live in freedom," he said.


Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report