Migrant Crime in Germany The Lost Sons of North Africa
Thousands of young men from North Africa come to Germany every year and many of them, like Samir, fall afoul of the law. Officials would like to accelerate the deportation process, but the criminals aren't welcome back home either. By SPIEGEL Staff
The other inmates are still sleeping when Samir, 36, is awakened by the guards. It is 5:30 a.m. on a day in early April, and the sun hasn't come up yet. He is told to dress quietly before police officers wearing black balaclavas take the Tunisian national into the courtyard of the Dresden correctional facility.
Samir's brown hair is cut short, and his beard is full. He is wearing a red down vest and jeans. A black Mercedes van is waiting in the courtyard to take him on his last trip through Germany.
They drive to the Leipzig/Halle airport, from which Samir is to be deported. Leipzig has developed into a hub for deportations, with more than 2,100 foreigners flown out of its airport last year.
Germania charter flight ST 2828, which is to take Samir and 16 other deportees to Tunisia, is accompanied by 67 federal police officers, two doctors and an interpreter. The words "Germany Escort" are printed on their cases. The airport's Terminal A was long used by the US Army as a stopover for soldiers being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, but is now a regular starting point for deportation flights. A group of Tunisians, heavily guarded by the police, are sitting in the waiting area and two blue portable toilets have been set up outside the entrance. Prisoners who need to use the restroom remain handcuffed, with a police officer keeping his foot in the door. When one of the prisoners complains about the handcuffs, an officer gruffly instructs him to "try harder, my good man."
The officers are especially cautious with Tunisians. Many of the deportees resist or injure themselves to avoid being sent out of the country. There have been cases of detainees swallowing the batteries from their cell phones, while others have stuck razor blades in their mouths or suddenly pulled box cutters from their belts. As a result, three "personal air escorts" are assigned to guard each Tunisian.
Samir is required to undress completely for a full body search. A doctor examines all cavities on the lookout for items the detainee may be attempting to smuggle.
Afterward, Samir seems calm, to the point that officers have chosen not to keep him in handcuffs. "In Tunisia, I had no hope and no future," he says. In 2008, he boarded a boat operated by traffickers from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy, where he lived for a year before traveling to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. He arrived in Germany in May 2014 where he applied for asylum. He says he had wanted to begin a new life in Germany and had hoped to find work. In Tunisia, he had left school at the age of 12 and worked for a hairdresser, but he has no other skills. When questioned in court, he said that he began regularly smoking hashish when he was 10.
The authorities denied his asylum application, but he was not deported, instead being given a certificate of suspension from deportation. He became a drug dealer at the main train station in Dresden, was addicted to crystal meth and drank seven to 10 bottles of beer or a bottle of vodka every day. Unfortunately for him, some of those to whom he sold hashish were plainclothes police officers. In July 2016, a court in Dresden convicted him of multiple theft and drug offenses and he was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison. Authorities believed that his drug addiction made it likely that he would commit crimes again in the future.
Flight ST 2828 takes off for Enfidha at 12:20 p.m. He is "fed up with Germany," says Samir shortly before departure. His European dream has come to an end.
A Traumatic Night
No other group of foreigners has fallen into disrepute in Germany in recent years as much as young men from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. In 2016, only 2.4 percent of asylum seekers came from these North African countries, and yet 11 percent of immigrants suspected of committing a crime are from the Maghreb region. In Cologne, random samples showed that in 2015, more than 40 percent of migrants from the Maghreb committed robbery or theft within the first year of their arrival, says criminal division chief Thomas Schulte, who headed the investigations after the 2015/2016 New Year's Eve assaults on women in Cologne.
It was that traumatic night that permanently altered Germany's view of the refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom had arrived in the country in the months prior. The image of the malevolent refugee was born that night. Most of those suspected of having molested and robbed women were North Africans, or "Nafris," a slang term the police use to refer to habitual offenders from North Africa. That term, too, became controversial after police stopped hundreds of young foreigners they suspected of being "Nafris" during the most recent New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne.
In Cologne and Düsseldorf, in particular, law enforcement has been struggling with criminals from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for years, with police having investigated 400 suspects from the Maghreb region in 2016 alone. Recently, though, it has become clear how many North Africans commit offenses elsewhere as well. In Saxony, most migrant repeat offenders are from one of the Maghreb countries and North Africans dominate the drug trade in the neighborhood surrounding the Frankfurt train station. In the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, a group of migrants committed so many robberies in such a short amount of time that local authorities formed a task force focusing on migrant repeat offenders, with many of the suspects having come from the North African coast. The police believe that one reason for the declining number of criminal offenses in Karlsruhe has to do with the falling number of migrants in the city.
Many of the criminal migrants are repeat offenders. A 34-year-old Moroccan who allegedly raped a woman in a bathroom in Hamburg's Reeperbahn entertainment district in December had a criminal record, and yet the local authorities felt they were not in a position to deport him. In fact, only 660 Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians were deported in 2016, even though deportation orders had been issued for close to 9,000 of them. In response, the federal government now intends to speed up deportations.
The German parliament, the Bundestag, tightened asylum law once again last week. The maximum duration of pre-deportation custody is being increased from four to 10 days, while rules governing pre-deportation detention and surveillance of those considered to be threats have been eased. The aim is to thwart a rejected asylum seeker like Tunisian national Anis Amri, who committed the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in December. But it isn't quite that simple. Many North Africans have destroyed their papers, some have gone into hiding, and their native countries have proven uncooperative.
Germany's police officers and authorities have been, in many respects, overwhelmed by the criminals from the lower classes of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The young men often have a criminal record when they arrive in Germany, after having been street thieves or drug dealers in cities like Casablanca and Algiers. "Many apparently did not go to school and some can't even write their own names," says Jörg Grethe, head of the Karlsruhe task force. Unlike Georgians, the North Africans are not usually members of gangs, he says, with most of the men having met in refugee shelters.
Many are drug addicts, say investigators. They are often so high on alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs that they become insensitive to pain and adopt a "devil-may-care attitude," says criminal investigator Schulte, who headed the "Nafri" police project in 2013, an extensive analysis of offenders from the Maghreb countries. He characterizes these offenders as being "highly likely to commit violent acts," ruthlessly using knives during their robberies, injuring victims or police officers. They often use false identities, refuse to cooperate during interrogations and rarely exhibit remorse, Schulte says, adding: "This reveals a high degree of contempt for our legal system."
Until early 2016, more than a dozen young North African offenders lived in communal housing at the Wiesbaden correctional facility. But when they began to run riot and demolish their rooms, they had to be moved to adult prisons. Some had swallowed pieces of spoons or glass, according to prison management and many of them appear not to care about anything. One reason is their lack of a future in Germany: Less than 4 percent of asylum applications filed by Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians are approved.
Trying His Own Luck
Abdul, 19, is sitting in his blue prison uniform in the visitors' room at the Wittlich juvenile detention center in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It is a small room with one window, a table and a few chairs. It is drizzling outside. Abdul and a Syrian, whose identity is questionable, are slated to trial the next day, having been charged with assault and theft, among other offenses. They allegedly attacked and robbed a man who was asleep at the main train station in the western city of Trier, during which the victim fell into the track bed and was injured.
Abdul has been in pretrial detention for the last six months, and it isn't the first time. He has a previous conviction for theft. In his last trial, the juvenile court judge gave the Moroccan one last chance and placed him on probation, so that he could complete a training program as a metalworker. She must have seen potential in the young man, and perhaps she also pitied him.
Abdul says he was 10 when he left his village in Morocco. Without any money or belongings, he spent half a day walking on a dusty road toward Fez, a city in northern Morocco. At first, he was afraid that his father would catch him and beat him, but eventually Abdul realized that no one was looking for him - not his stepmother, who didn't like him, and not his father, who wanted to please his new wife. In Fez, Abdul stowed away on a train bound for the coast. After that, he lived on the street near the Spanish enclave of Melilla for a while.
He eventually met traffickers who gave him a job. Working at night, he helped make and paint wooden dividers and secretly install them in parked trucks. Several people could hide in the space behind the dividers and when the police shined their flashlights inside the trucks, they usually fell for the trick. The boy saw many Moroccans leave for Europe: "Most of them are now in Luxembourg and have a lot of money," he believes.
Abdul eventually decided to try his own luck. He hung onto the undercarriage of a postal service vehicle and made it onto a ferry to Malaga, Spain. "That was a beautiful moment," he says.
In Spain, he was arrested for theft and sent to a home for unaccompanied, underage refugees. Then he went to France, where he spent most of his time "begging and living on the street," says Abdul, sometimes finding a bed in a homeless shelter. Ultimately, he says, he wanted to "see what it was like in Germany" and on a July day in 2013, he boarded a train bound for Frankfurt am Main. In Saarbrücken, just past the border, police detained him and took him to a home for underage refugees; he was 15 at the time. He has had very little schooling, but he speaks French and Spanish "pretty well" and also claims to have learned German relatively quickly. "I'm not stupid," says Abdul. His attorney Sven Collet, a public defender who has represented young North African in court for many years, says that he is a "clever guy," compared to many others. "When I get out of here, I really want to make something of myself," says Abdul.
Trying to Help
Mimoun Berrissoun, 30, wants to help young offenders. The Cologne social worker with Moroccan roots launched an award-winning project called 180 Grad Wende, or "180-Degree Turnaround," which focuses on keeping young migrants away from a life of crime and preventing them from becoming radicalized. The social workers, who speak Arabic and Turkish, run a counseling center in the Kalk neighborhood of Cologne and spend a lot of time in the streets, also trying to interact with North Africans. "We know many of the known troublemakers," says Berrissoun. Many of them were only recruited into a life of crime once they arrived in Germany, he says. Without prospects for the future, they become easy targets for professional criminals, he explains.
- Part 1: The Lost Sons of North Africa
- Part 2: What Can Be Done?