The comments clashed terribly with the day’s news: Not long after Interior Minister Horst Seehofer cheerfully noted that 69 asylum seekers were deported from Germany on his 69th birthday last week, local news outlets reported that one of those refugees was found dead in his hotel. He apparently killed himself.
The 23-year-old Afghan had spent nearly a third of his life in Germany before being forcibly returned on an airplane to Kabul last week, along with 68 other Afghan nationals. He had arrived at an emergency shelter on July 4 and was found dead six days later, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The comments from Seehofer, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), sparked outrage and calls for his resignation, and they could hardly come at a more volatile time for the German government. For the past month, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Seehofer, whose party is a partner in Merkel's governing coalition, have been embroiled in a debate about Germany’s migration policy that nearly torpedoed her government.
Anti-migrant rhetoric, such as that used by Seehofer and others, is part of a broader political strategy, according to Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research. “They dramatize in an inappropriate and disproportionate way that’s entirely divorced from reality,” Kaschuba said, citing past comments from Bavarian state premier Markus Söder of the CSU in which he cast asylum seekers as “asylum tourists” who come to Germany to vacation, not to flee war and poverty.
“They’re playing into the hands of right-wing populists who say that if we got rid of foreigners, we’ll have a quiet and peaceful society. [Viktor] Orban is doing that in Hungary, [Matteo] Salvini in Italy, [Sebastian] Kurz in Austria,” Kaschuba said.
A hard-line stance on immigration has been part of the CSU’s political strategy ahead of regional elections in the fall, but it hasn’t proved successful, according to recent polls, which show a drop in support for the CSU and the governing coalition. The real winners may be the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which made record gains in polls last year and has had a significant influence on parliamentary debates and mainstream rhetoric.
“Over the past months, the debate has gotten sharper and more intense,” said Hendrik Cremer, policy adviser at the German Institute for Human Rights. The CSU, he said, “talks only about deportation, and campaigns to increase the number of deportations as much as possible. But that we’re talking about people, many of whom are in need of protection, that’s lost in these debates.”
The 69 Afghans forcibly returned to Kabul last week were among the largest groups yet deported to Afghanistan, according to Spiegel Online. Since 2016, Germany has deported about 300 Afghans, despite the still-perilous state of security amid attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan numbered 2,258 in the first quarter of the year, a near-record level, according to U.N. officials.
“There’s been a turning point in German asylum politics,” Cremer said. “The way the German government is regarding the security situation there despite the frequent attacks and insecurity in the region is a clear indication of that.”
The Afghan man’s death is still being investigated by authorities. According to the German Interior Ministry, he was from the northern Afghan province of Balkh and last lived in Hamburg. A speaker for the Hamburg Immigration Authority said the Afghan national had committed several crimes in Germany, including theft and attempted injury, and had resisted authorities. He came to Germany in 2011 and applied for asylum that year. After his application was rejected in 2012, he appealed the decision and received temporary staying permits but not asylum status.
The man probably hanged himself, said Hafizullah Miakhil, who is with the Ministry for Refugees in Kabul.
On Wednesday morning, the German Interior Ministry tweeted that the man's death was a “deeply lamentable occurrence.”
Fareshta Queedes, a staff member at the International Psychosocial Organization in Kabul, told a German news outlet that the deported returnees are often in a poor mental state. “They don’t have any interest in living anymore,” she said, citing poor economic prospects, unsafe living conditions and a culture that often shames returnees.
Seehofer uttered his comments while presenting his “master plan” for migration, which included transit centers intended to expedite the removal of ineligible asylum seekers, as well as measures to speed up asylum processing and deportations.
Lawyers and human rights advocates have criticized the plan, saying it potentially violates European Union asylum rules, the Geneva Conventions and the German government’s coalition agreement.
“What’s missing is any sort of acknowledgment of the need to protect people who are threatened in their country of origin,” Cremer said. “There’s no mention of a migrant’s right to receive legal counsel, nor any process to identify persons with special needs — for example, those who are suffering from trauma or disabilities.”
Dominik Bartsch, the Germany representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, criticized Seehofer’s plan, saying it concentrates “solely on a sharpening of administrative and procedural processes and neglects what’s the most important point: the human being.”
About 68.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide, the highest number since World War II, according to UNHCR. At the same time, Germany and other E.U. members are increasingly tightening their borders and seeking to largely outsource the continent’s migration challenge. In 2015, Germany took in about 890,000 refugees. This year, new arrivals are projected to plummet to 132,000.
On Wednesday, the United Nations' migration agency tweeted that for the fifth year in a row, more than 1,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea.