A Migration Nightmare Why Germany's Deportation System Is Failing Everyone

As Germany tries to crack down on rejected asylum-seekers and criminal refugees, its civil servants are constrained by the limits of a dysfunctional system. Whether refugee, police officer or office clerk, almost everyone involved has something to complain about. By DER SPIEGEL Staff


When German Federal Police officers talk about what it's like to accompany a migrant on a deportation flight, it's easy to feel a sense of shame for this country's immigration apparatus. The officers, who are regularly attacked on the job, share how they're often spit on with blood or pelted with feces. A meager 1.20 euros ($1.36) a day is meant to offset the cost of general wear and tear for the suits they are expected to buy themselves -- and have to wear during deportation flights. Their employer will only pay for laundering "if the clothing has been particularly dirtied (blood/saliva/urine) while at work."

There's more: The cost of onboard meals is taken out of the officers' daily travel allowances, which are already negligible. After the officers return from, say, an exhausting 72-hour trip to Asia or Africa, they must then painstakingly log their work hours. Several people told DER SPIEGEL the hours they spent flying home weren't even counted as "work time," since their superiors considered them to be "travel time." Sometimes the officers are forced to put in 20 to 30-hour shifts before even seeing a cheap hotel bed. "When we're in Afghanistan, standing around waiting for the next thing to happen, sometimes they'll deduct that time from my hours as a break," says one Federal Police officer.

The officers are also required to pay up front for costs incurred while working abroad -- "and then I wait weeks until the government reimburses me." When officers return from a deportation flight, beset by jet lag, they're often expected to report for normal duty the next day. That's because there is no such thing as extra time off due to jet lag in the service regulations. On top of that, escorting officers invariably have trouble getting their full shift bonuses -- since they aren't home and can't take part in rotating schedules. In the end, they earn less money than they might have if they had simply stayed in Germany. That's the reality, though most people rarely hear about it.

The trials of civil servants who stick their necks out for Germany and keep its constitutional democracy running smoothly often go unnoticed, especially amid the appalling disorganization surrounding deportations. That Germany's asylum landscape is full of holes is nothing new, but it's becoming more clear just how deficient the system is. After the mass, uncontrolled migration of 2015 and 2016, it will take years for a sense of normality and order to set in.

Low-Hanging Fruit

But instead of getting down to brass tacks and working together to establish a coherent system of asylum laws, immigration laws and orderly deportations that works for everyone, things have only gotten more chaotic and confused. And so the problem remains among the lowest hanging fruit for populist politicians and right-leaning media to get worked up about. When acts of violence are perpetrated by foreigners, Germany's largest tabloid asks, "How many more victims do there have to be?"

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In Germany, there are two diametrically opposed camps, each of which holds the other in the absolute lowest regard. On the one side, there are people led by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party who ominously warn of a "population exchange" ushered in by dark forces. On the other side are their ideological opposites, those who eschew xenophobia and national borders and want all government policy to follow strict moral codes. Between these two extremes -- "all foreigners out" vs. "all foreigners in" -- are Germany's political parties, which are all too happy to exploit this black-and-white mentality for their own electoral gains.

The reality of the situation is often drowned out by all the clamor. Germany's federal and state governments and its administrative bodies don't seem to have learned anything from the exodus from Yugoslavia in the 1990s that brought the last major wave of refugees to Germany. To this day, there is room for less than 500 people in the country's pre-deportation detention centers, even though thousands are slated for repatriation. Despite all statements to the contrary, even the case of the Berlin Christmas market terrorist attacker, Anis Amri, a Tunisian national who was the product of a failing asylum bureaucracy, failed to spark any radical rethinking or system overhaul so that Germany's bureaucrats could learn to work together in a meaningful and sensible way. Instead, the country has been left vulnerable to that kind of attack at any time.

No Action, Clarity or Oversight

A simple rule of thumb applies in Germany: Politicians who stand in front of the cameras and portray themselves as the "country's toughest migrant deporter," or a "person who toughens laws to protect the German people," are generally impostors. There is no shortage of laws, provisions, regulations or tough rules. What's lacking is action. And clarity. And oversight. And above all else, the recognition that German states and communal immigration authorities are drastically overwhelmed in their bureaucratic task of handling migrants from all corners of the world. There is also a need, even in a country with the kind of federalist structures Germany has in place, for a centralized process that guarantees things will be carried out in a clear and fair manner. There is no shortage of proposals, working groups or task forces, and yet there still isn't a coherent overall framework, even though a "master plan" has existed for months. In the end, this dysfunction hurts everyone involved in the deportation process.

A few figures illustrate the mess the European and German asylum systems are currently in: In light of the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that migrants must file their asylum applications in the first EU country in which they set foot, Germany deported 9,209 migrants to other European countries this past year, while taking in 7,580 asylum applicants from others.

A total of 23,617 people were deported from Germany last year. But at the same time, there were 30,921 failed deportation attempts. This was because people got sick, went missing, suffered some ill stroke of fate or because court orders got in the way. There were 7,849 cases of "unsuccessful delivery on the day of flight," and 3,322 times, ongoing repatriation attempts had to be aborted due to "denial of transportation," "active/passive resistance," "unsuitability for air travel" or "legal appeals." But one reason not included in this list is: "Germany's absurd administrative complexity." One Federal Police officer estimates that in order to successfully deport 150 people, 1,000 official deportation procedures must be initiated for around 600 people to be identified who qualify for deportation. Of those 600, some 400 nighttime raids must be organized in order to ultimately take into custody 150 people who can actually be put on a plane. And even that number isn't a sure thing.

Once a deportation has been carried out, a "revolving door effect" begins. There are no official statistics, but high-ranking officials estimate that a large number of deportees return to Germany sooner or later to try their luck anew.

Bad for Everyone

Behind this wall of numbers lurks the nasty business of deportation. Most of the time the customers are people whose hopes have been destroyed. They are afraid of what will happen to them and they despair to think that everything may have been for naught. That includes the money they have paid to smugglers and also the dangerous journey that brought them to Germany. Deportation represents the dirty end of all their dreams, and whoever says Germany should simply deport rejected asylum-seekers -- just like that, get rid of 'em, all those pesky foreigners -- has no idea just how dirty it can get. This is just as true for the people being deported as it is for the police officers doing the deporting. There are plenty of examples.


On June 6, 2018, 90 foreigners sat on a plane chartered by the Czech low-cost airline SmartWings. There were also 83 Federal Police officers on board, four doctors and a paramedic. The flight was to Madrid because all of the 90 men, women and children first touched European soil in Spain. According to EU asylum law, they should have stayed there rather than continuing on to Germany.

The Berlin Refugee Council, an association of human rights activists and advocates, speaks of "horror deportations." They allege police tied up a woman and carried her onto a plane in front of her crying small children, while she screamed for her husband who was not being deported with her. Another woman was hit. Yet another man, mentally handicapped, was sedated with medication until he appeared "completely out of it." Everywhere there were desperate, sobbing people. And what did the police do? They laughed at them.

In response to an inquiry by the Green Party, the state government in Berlin took a more sober tone: "The general accusations of physical violence cannot be confirmed." By any account, it was not a pleasant flight. In a statement, the federal government confirmed that indeed, one "person" had to be carried onto the plane, three families had been torn apart and, yes, police had tied up five people.

None of this is uncommon, statistics show. From January to November 2018, restraints or tethers were used on such flights roughly 300 times. Five foreigners were forced to wear head or bite guards because they kept resisting transport. Police escorts regularly find razor blades in shoe soles or in people's mouths, which deportees use to injure themselves. This shows just how high the stakes can be: For many of these forced passengers, repatriation is a matter of life and death.

What About the Police?

In light of these conditions, human rights advocates are constantly asking what the state is doing to these people. But on the other side are the police officers. Who's asking on their behalf what effect all this violence and anguish has on them? No one. Not even their employer, the Federal Police, which organizes most of the deportation flights.

Police officers are supposed to conduct themselves in such an inoffensive manner that no one has any reason to complain about the government. But the fact that it's the police officers themselves who are doing much of the complaining is something the authorities have not taken seriously in recent years. The government simply doesn't seem to care how officers are supposed to find the necessary energy to fulfill their duties. On the contrary, civil servants who set foot on any of these repatriation flights are treated extremely poorly by their employer.

It begins with money. So far, officers that have accompanied deportees have not received a single cent extra for doing so, even though it goes above and beyond the normal requirements of their job. Instead, they get the usual allowance public servants receive when they travel, such as when they attend conferences. This is not the case in Norway, for instance. There, the government pays police officers between 600 and 2,000 euros per flight. Italy pays its officers 1,000 euros for every three repatriation flights they escort. Now, the German Interior Ministry is considering its own extra pay scheme -- it's been fiddling with the details for more than a year -- but it won't be higher than 50 to 100 euros per trip. The maximum rate would also only apply to flights that are longer than eight hours. This is all according to a draft law that could be ratified in 2020, and maybe it would even apply retroactively to 2019, but who knows?

Degraded to 'Piggy Banks'

Progress happens at a snail's pace in today's Germany. "The more deportations there have been, the worse the conditions have become for the accompanying officers," says Jörg Radek of the German Police Union. "Accompanying officers have been degraded to piggy banks." And what these "piggy banks" have been forced to put up with on repatriation flights, in addition to a lack of additional pay, is all documented in the deployment reports.

Oct. 24, 2018. A flight from Munich to Rome. "The nine deportees on board continue to put up massive and active resistance. Three air escorts from the Federal Police were spat on with a mixture of blood and saliva directly into their eyes (deportee had bitten his own tongue)."

Jan. 22, 2019. Düsseldorf to Dhaka. "Deportee No. 4 attempted to bite or headbutt police officers."

And then there was the incident along the A3 autobahn near Cologne in late October 2018: A Bavarian police officer, just 20 years old, and her colleague were escorting a Nigerian man to Düsseldorf in a VW bus for a mass deportation. The Nigerian was sitting behind them in the vehicle's prisoner compartment. For the first 550 kilometers (342 miles), it remained an uneventful ride. Suddenly, the man began to try and strangle himself with his seat belt. The officers hit the brakes, pulled over and jumped out to help the man. The sliding door to the rear compartment, however, which can only be opened from the outside, somehow slid shut amid the scuffle. Inside, the Nigerian was flailing aggressively with his arms and legs. Only with considerable effort were the officers able to unwrap the seatbelt from his neck and restrain him. Afterward, it took them a while to free themselves from the locked bus, which they were only able to do by using their batons.

An Unattractive Job

In an internal paper dating from last April, the Federal Police leadership spoke of a "growing disposition to violence and malice" with which officers had to grapple. But it's not only the aggressiveness of the people they're escorting that weighs on them -- it's also the sheer stinginess of their employer. Official regulations specify whether and how expenses incurred during shifts are to be reimbursed. In the past, this has led to a situation in which food consumed on board has been deducted from an officer's daily allowance. During longer assignments, escorting officers are only allowed to book rooms in cheap hotels, where -- of course -- breakfast is deducted from their daily allowance. Backpacks and fanny packs for the trip must be provided by the officers themselves. They don't even receive an allowance for the suits they are required to wear -- and buy themselves. Germany's sky marshals on the other hand, who are tasked with neutralizing potential terrorists on board airplanes, receive a few thousand euros from the Federal Police to cover the costs of their undercover business traveler outfits.

Of course, when it comes to limits on working overtime, the federal government's adherence to regulations is conspicuously absent. During one deportation on Aug. 14, 2018, from Munich to Kabul, police officers from Dresden were required to work a 27-hour shift. The record is apparently 40 hours. In a confidential report from last April, even the Federal Police's own leadership admitted "that the general conditions do not exactly make this job more attractive."

All of this has consequences. According to officials involved in deportations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find enough officers for the flights. The flights aren't compulsory, after all; the Federal Police seeks volunteers from within its ranks who are willing to accompany foreigners as they are deported against their will.

On Dec. 4, 2018, the Federal Police headquarters in Sankt Augustin put out its second call for volunteers for a deportation flight to Pakistan. "Of the 110 officers required, only 59 have so far come forward." A similar appeal for a flight last summer to Nigeria and Gambia was also documented: "This is a renewed request for participation so that at least an appropriate number of the announced deportees (38) can be escorted." Sixteen police officers volunteered, but 75 were needed for the flight.

Necessity Knows No Law

In their confidential paper from April, the Federal Police openly diagnosed "operational fatigue" among its officers. It was becoming "increasingly" apparent that they were "reaching their limit for stress and motivation" and that "a great deal of effort was required" to find volunteers. This was not a one-off observation, either, it stated: The problems go much deeper.

For politicians, the findings are dramatic. "It must be emphasized that these structures will make it impossible to significantly increase the number of deportees. Even maintaining the current levels of deportation will only be possible if everyone involved remains highly motivated."

So what can be done? Necessity knows no law, as the saying goes. One of the first things the Interior Ministry came up with was to pass a decree in September 2018 which did not go down well at all with the Federal Police's staff council or many deportation escort officers.

Ever since Aamir Ageeb from Sudan suffocated in an airplane while being deported in 1999, only police officers who have completed a 15-day "Personal Air Companion" course are allowed on board planes used for deporting unwanted migrants. At the end of last year, there were 1,269 such qualified officers around Germany. Only around 1,100 are currently in a deployable state. The decree passed in September 2018 states that "further suitable" Federal Police officers may now "be deployed." That is to say, officers who haven't completed the 15-day course. But the decree, which is valid until the end of June, leaves open the question of which officers are now suitable.

The Interior Ministry's decree had merely formalized what had long been standard practice. Under pressure from an increasing number of deportation flights, the Federal Police hadn't only used untrained officers on the alleged "horror deportation" flight from Berlin to Madrid back in June. For months, the Federal Police has been knowingly operating in a legal gray area. There is evidence that a "mixed" escort team, made up of officers with special deportation training and officers without such specialized knowledge, was deployed on a flight to Kabul last August. After another flight with untrained officers on board, one flight attendant noted that the inexperienced colleagues "hadn't really known how they were supposed to work on the plane."

Untrained and Misused

Last February, the Federal Police deployed a class of air escort trainees from the eastern German city of Frankfurt (Oder) onto a deportation flight. Their deployment was billed as "quasi practical training." In a formal letter of complaint, the Interior Ministry's main staff council told senior ministry official Hans-Georg Engelke that now even office clerks were allowed to board deportation flights, regardless of whether they had the necessary vaccinations or even a visa for the target country. "It's irresponsible to misuse untrained civil servants for deportations," says Radek from the police union.

Now, the planned law is expected to at least secure the air escorts some extra remuneration. In addition, there will also be official credit cards, balaclavas and more so-called "spit shields." Subtracting the cost of unappetizing airline food from officers' daily allowance will be a thing of the past. Somehow the Federal Police needs to attract 2,000 escort officers and keep them coming back until 2021. Otherwise the German government's promise of firmer action to ensure that deportations take place will be mere lip service.

The way things are going now, it's already an empty promise. And it doesn't only have to do with ill-equipped civil servants; the system itself is dysfunctional. One Federal Police officer told DER SPIEGEL that deportation flights were routinely canceled, regardless of whether they were supposed to be bringing harmless asylum-seekers out of the country or people who were deemed public safety threats. "If the foreigner isn't in custody, you don't need to bother applying for the job. You get to the airport and he's simply not there, so the deportation is canceled and you don't get paid for your time. I almost only ever apply when the foreigner is in custody," the officer says. "That's what a lot of us do. Otherwise, you take the time to get yourself a visa, it's a ton of work, and it's all for nothing. Somehow they've vanished into thin air."

Again and again, deportation flights were canceled because not enough escort officers had reported for duty, he says. There were "a whole bunch of measures" that didn't happen "because no one volunteered." The most recent example was on Wednesday, Feb. 27. It was a flight from Düsseldorf to Accra, Ghana. Fifty-three foreigners were to be deported, but only 24 showed up. The usual. Of those 24, eight had to be left behind because there weren't enough escorts. In the end, eight foreigners had to be shackled anyway; one had punched an officer in the head, a second kicked an officer in the knee and a third kicked an officer in the stomach.

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