An airplane returning refugees to Afghanistan prepares to take off in western Germany. (Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)

The attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last month, carried out by a Tunisian migrant who was denied asylum in Germany, has sparked demands that the German government move to deport its tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers more quickly. But some local governments are actually moving to keep some of those rejected migrants in the country.

Right-wing violence against refugees and asylum seekers has risen sharply in Germany during the European migrant crisis, and the eastern German state of Brandenburg has now become the first region to say that rejected asylum seekers who have become victims or witnesses of such attacks will be allowed to stay in the country. The capital city of Berlin already provides authorities with leeway to decide against deportations in such cases, and the city might soon follow with a parliamentary decree. While both states will offer attack victims protection from deportation, neither will offer them permanent residency.

Political leaders hope those moves could send a strong signal to right-wing extremists and anti-immigration parties that have stepped up their rhetoric. Interior Ministry officials said on Monday that hundreds of neo-Nazis are feared to have gone underground, possibly preparing attacks against refugees.

“[This initiative is directed toward those] who think that in order to drive refugees out of the country one has to attack them. I say 'no' to this,” Berlin's interior minister, Andreas Geisel, said to the city's Tagesspiegel newspaper.

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The debate comes amid a rush elsewhere in Germany to pass laws to ease the deportation of declined asylum seekers, reflecting a debate that will likely extend into the general elections later this year. Berlin and Brandenburg are both governed by the Social Democratic Party, while Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party is pushing for a tougher stance on the issue in reaction to the December Christmas market attack.

Anis Amri, the 24-year old who drove a lorry into the crowded holiday market, was refused asylum in Germany but could not be deported because he had no passport, according to German media reports. German law would have allowed authorities to imprison Amri, but no such steps were taken.

“We will examine with vigor to what extent we need to adapt state measures,” Merkel announced four days after the attack. She appeared to acknowledge flaws in current legislation and signal that she would push for tougher measures.

German authorities have so far struggled to deport the huge number of failed asylum seekers in the country. Almost 900,000 people entered in 2015 alone, and many remain in Germany despite having been refused asylum. Only about 75,000 failed asylum seekers left the country in 2016, and the majority of them departed the country voluntarily rather than being deported.

Elsewhere in Europe, similar cases of victims of xenophobia have caused public outrage but failed to cause policy changes. Mubarak Haji Ahmed, one of the survivors of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway committed by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, faced deportation to Djibouti in 2015 despite losing his brother in the attack and suffering hearing loss and mental health issues as a consequence.

“Everything is unjust about this case — it is a horror story of immigration administration gone amok,” Rune Berglund Steen, the director of the Norwegian Center Against Racism, said in 2015.

Authorities went ahead with the deportation of his family anyway. It's a scenario officials in parts of Germany would now be able to avoid.

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