Germany said Friday it would allow deportation of Syrians to their war-ravaged homeland from 2021 if they are deemed a security risk, five years after a massive refugee influx.
The EU’s biggest economic power and most populous member allowed in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria‘s devastating civil war in 2015-16 but security officials said it was time to lift blanket protections against expulsion.
“The general ban on deportations (to Syria) will expire at the end of this year,” Hans-Georg Engelke, state secretary at the interior ministry, told reporters.
“Those who commit crimes or pursue terrorist aims to do serious harm to our state and our population should and will have to leave our country.”
The decision, which drew vehement criticism from human rights groups, was taken at a telephone conference between federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a hardline conservative who had long called for an end to the deportation ban, and his 16 state-level counterparts.
The Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-left “grand coalition” government, failed in their bid to win a six-month extension of the protections, in place since 2012.
They argued that the still precarious security and humanitarian situation in Syria made expulsions there indefensible.
‘First EU country’
Engelke, standing in for Seehofer who was in quarantine after a coronavirus exposure, told a news conference that an estimated 90 Syrian suspected Islamists were believed to be in Germany.
Calls for a change in stance have been growing since a Syrian man was arrested in November on suspicion of carrying out a deadly knife attack in the city of Dresden.
Prosecutors said the 20-year-old, accused of killing one tourist and seriously injuring another, had a raft of criminal convictions and a history of involvement with the Islamist scene.
He had been living in Germany under “tolerated” status granted to people whose asylum requests have been rejected, but who cannot be deported.
Boris Pistorius of the SPD, interior minister of Lower Saxony, noted that on a practical level expulsions to Syria would remain next to impossible “because there are no state institutions with which we have diplomatic relations”.
But he sharply criticised the symbolic meaning of Germany becoming what he called the first EU country to lift the deportation ban.
Germany took in more than one million migrants including tens of thousands of Syrians at the height of the refugee influx 2015-16 when several EU member states shut their borders to asylum seekers.
The German foreign ministry has described conditions in Syria as “catastrophic” and noted that its nationals continue to be “exposed to dangers when they return” to their home country.
Government forces have regained control of large swathes of territory once held by rebels and Islamist groups, but opponents of the Assad government still face torture and death, according to human rights organisations.
However as Germany heads into a general election year to replace Merkel after 16 years in power, conservative politicians seized on the issue amid concerns among some voters about the security risk posed by refugees.
“In such a situation, you can’t tell the German population on the issue of whether someone poses a danger… that it is taboo to even think about sending them home,” Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told the news conference.
German campaigners slammed the decision, calling it opportunistic and driven by political interests.
“The behaviour of the conservative interior ministers is a disgrace for the rule of law and irresponsible in its substance,” Guenter Burkhardt of refugee rights group PRO ASYL said in a statement, calling it a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Syria’s war, which broke out after the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011, has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions.
Germany has launched several criminal cases over alleged war crimes in Syria under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes.