NUREMBERG, Germany—After the cops took Asef N. outside to the squad car, his classmates from the vocational college, Berufsschule 11, rushed down to the street and sat down on the pavement to stop the overheated vehicle with the 21-year-old Afghan stuck inside from leaving the driveway. “Nobody is illegal!” they chanted.
Neither side fought nice. The police used pepper spray and brandished their batons, while the students armed themselves with bottles and a bicycle. One police officer had his tooth knocked out.
The cops dragged Asef by his legs across the asphalt and into another squad car.
“I’ll be back in one month. I’ll be back anyway—and I’ll kill some Germans,” he reportedly shouted.
An adult acquaintance who describes Asef as a calm and friendly young man, says this is out of character for him. She thinks he was completely frightened, and it’s a shame about his threat. “He didn’t do himself a favor,” she said.
That same evening, on Wednesday last week, a charter jet was booked to deport a group of Afghan men from the glistening airport in Frankfurt to a city where more than 90 people had just been killed in the biggest terror attack Kabul has seen in years. The flight was immediately “postponed” even though, according to the German government, Kabul is a region that is “relatively stable” despite “one-off security incidents.”
Then, one day after news of the suicide bombing and the spread of video recorded in front of Berufsschule 11, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the foreign ministry would reassess Afghanistan’s security situation and mass repatriations to Afghanistan would be suspended until July.
The flights, part of a deal brokered between European Union member states and Afghanistan in October, have been slammed as “inhumane” by some; sneered at as a “joke“ by others: “It should be thousands that are deported,” Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder said back in February. (Records show 106 people have been sent back to Afghanistan since December, versus 12,000 Afghans who have been denied asylum and told to leave but may not have.)
“These are political gestures,” political scientist Werner Ruf told The Daily Beast. Putting 14 people on a plane to Kabul works mainly as a “deterrent,” he said. And, after the Berlin truck attacker Anis Amri and Franco A., a right-wing extremist soldier who disguised himself as a Syrian refugee made a mockery of the country’s border security, the deportations are a sort of “tranquilizer for the public.”
But not always, it seems. Wednesday’s events had people angry as hell.
When the cops showed up at Berufsschule 11 (which hosts integration courses that are all about learning German and navigating the job market) in the cozy Bavarian city of Nuremberg, with orders to pick up Asef N. after his first period—social studies, as it happened—the other students were immediately suspicious.
Since the start of the school year, more and more young adults in the course (most of them from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ethiopia) have been receiving deportation notices. And when one student gets a letter, everyone in the class talks about it. Some freak out: What if I’m next? Attendance and concentration, teachers complain, had been getting increasingly patchy.
The conservative interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has the job of selling the mass repatriations to voters. He says the government prioritizes tough-to-track young men with fake IDs and criminal records. The police try to avoid giving advance notice. One man who was sent back in January told the TV Channel Arte: “I was sleeping when they unlocked the door to my room. They woke me up and said: We are taking you to Afghanistan. Then they handcuffed me.”
But in reality, the most rogue-minded will go into hiding before risking deportation, which is also why the private charter jets are never really full.
De Maizière has said that one third of the Afghans being deported have a criminal record, but on Wednesday’s canceled flight, it seemed that the candidates were chosen less because of their history in crime and more based on whether or not they live in Bavaria: The southern state had 20 people designated for deportation to Kabul, which was twice as many people as all the other German states together.
The Christian Social Union, which is the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, has have been campaigning with “the immigration theme” since the ’90s and, with the absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament, it is “very successful in showing that they stand for law and order,” says Stephan Dünnwald, who works for the Bavarian refugee council.
Whereas most German states do not, in practice, want to deport asylum seekers who have already started work or an apprenticeship, the old-school conservative party that has also been praised as “the last firewall” to the increasingly irrelevant far right has fewer qualms. This is often to the dismay of the Bavarian chambers of commerce and industry.
“Bavarian businesses like employing people from Afghanistan,” Dünnwald tells us. “They are regarded as really hard workers.”
Samsheed Haqiqat, a 30-year-old system administrator, doesn’t live in Bavaria. He lives in Berlin, which, under the groundbreaking left-wing “red red green” coalition, has rarely been accused of standing sternly for law and order, and his chances of actually being sent back to Afghanistan have been pretty low. Still, he told the German paper TAZ that, after receiving a deportation order in the mail, he would wake up at night “drenched in sweat, or from screaming in my sleep,” and that he, “couldn’t eat and was constantly scared that the police were coming.”
The men forced onto the charter jets reportedly arrive in Kabul looking tired and upset. Even for those who don’t wind up as victims of the Taliban, it’s painful to return, in some cases, empty-handed to a family who had to pool their resources to send you to Europe in the first place. (It’s definitely an incentive that the German government offers people a small sum of money if they return voluntarily.)
“I know—I don’t make myself very popular with this,” Merkel admitted when she was booed by the orange-bandana-wearing people at the evangelical Kirchentag in Berlin last week. She had been asked about the hundreds of letters written by frustrated volunteers: They had helped asylum seekers learn German, find a job, or get a place in school, and now these asylum seekers were being told they couldn’t stay?
But the quotas that the totally overworked Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is spitting out are not just drawing boos—they are also unobtainable: 485,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers will likely end up being officially required to leave the country by the end of the year. Yet even as the government is trying to reduce the time needed to get from an unconvincing asylum application to deportation (one to four years), there is still the major issue that 70 percent of refugees will have come without a passport, and, in many cases, their home countries will refuse to take them back.
According to the philosopher Joseph Vogl, Merkel’s announcement on stopping the deportations to Afghanistan last Thursday was a clear-cut example of her “endless opportunism.”
“The moment that bombs are going off in Afghanistan, in that moment there these deportations will be met with a total lack of understanding here in Germany,” he tells The Daily Beast, adding, “but when this news is forgotten, then the flights to Kabul will continue.”
According to the director of the school in Nuremberg, the students had been about to end the sit-in around the police car, when the cops began to manhandle them, trying to carry them out the way. That’s when the fighting started. Bavaria’s interior minister, on the other hand, blamed the city’s “left-wing radicals” for stirring up trouble online before coming to the school to attack police officers.
Children at the school also recall a story from a neighboring college, where one ex-student reportedly ended up in Kunduz after being sent back to Afghanistan. He wrote his class on Facebook that he was now hiding from the Taliban in a cellar.