Merkel Pushes Tunisia PM to Speed Up Migrant Returns

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday pushed Tunisia’s prime minister to speed up the returns of rejected asylum seekers, as Tunis rebuffed criticism that it was blocking repatriations.

The German leader has been battling to get Tunis to take back its citizens, with the issue taking on greater urgency since the deadly assault on a Berlin Christmas market in December.

The jihadist attack which claimed 12 lives has been blamed on Anis Amri, a Tunisian whose asylum application had been rejected half a year earlier, but could not be expelled because of Tunisian bureaucratic delays.

But ahead of the meeting in Berlin, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed threw out any criticism.

“One thing that I must say very clearly: the Tunisian authorities have not made any mistakes,” Chahed told Germany’s biggest selling daily Bild.

“Anis Amri was no terrorist when he left Tunisia in 2011, there were no signs that he had been radicalized.

“With regards to the identity documents, here too, the Tunisian authorities acted correctly,” he said.

Chahed said “cooperation with Germany works very well now” but threw the ball back in Berlin’s court.

“We need from the German side clear evidence that we are really dealing with Tunisians,” he said, estimating the number of his fellow citizens concerned by possible expulsions from Germany at around 1,000.

“Illegal immigrants who use false identity documents make it difficult and delay the process.”

– ‘Safe country?’ –

Merkel has been under pressure to reduce the number of asylum seekers in Germany, after the country took in over a million migrants and refugees since 2015.

While most refugees from war-torn Syria have qualified for temporary safe haven, applicants from Tunisia as well as Algeria and Morocco generally have not, because their countries are considered stable.

Last year the success rates for asylum requests was 3.5 percent for Moroccans, 2.7 percent for Algerians and just 0.8 percent for Tunisians.

In a press conference following talks with Chahed, Merkel noted that only 116 Tunisians were repatriated last year.

“That is not fast enough and here we talked about how we can improve this process,” she told reporters, raising the prospect of incentives to make returning to Tunisia more appealing.

“It works better if we can make (such returns) voluntary. But we must also make it clear, that whoever does not return of their own accord, they would then be returned involuntarily,” she said.

Merkel has repeatedly stressed that she wants Germany to list Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as “safe countries of origin”, raising the bar for asylum requests further, but the proposal has been held up in the upper house of parliament in Berlin over human rights concerns.

Amnesty International this week alleged that a rise in “brutal tactics” by Tunisian security forces, including torture and arbitrary arrests, are threatening pro-democracy reforms.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere last year visited all three Maghreb countries to urge better cooperation on repatriations.

The question had already became a hot-button issue after New Year’s Eve 2015-16, when mobs of North African men sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of women in the western city of Cologne, sparking public outrage.

– Hope in Tunisia –

Germany worries that with the advent of spring, the number of migrants making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing will rise again.

Many are traveling via chaotic Libya, which has lacked a functioning national government since the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

But Berlin also hopes other regional countries can help deter migrants from heading for the EU.

Merkel had voiced support for a proposal for Tunisia to set up “holding facilities” for refugees rescued from the Mediterranean — an idea spurned by Chahed.

The Tunisian premier said the question on such facilities did not surface during the Berlin meeting.

Rather, Merkel offered more help to Tunis to “get more job training, improve its domestic security, get more investments,” in a bid to persuade Tunisians to stay in their home country.

This would be “a partnership that helps people to no longer find themselves in a position where they say ‘I must try to find my fortune in Europe’, rather, for them to see hope in Tunisia,” she said