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The EU Gets Tough on Illegal Immigrants

With or without an Irish “yes” vote, the process of European integration is proceeding apace. Just how it works is shown, for instance, by the cooperation of the EU states on refugee and asylum policy and the securing of the EU’s external borders. Following relatively lengthy discussion and just in time for the European soccer championships, the EU interior ministers came to an agreement earlier this month on how best to get rid of people that are not wanted in the EU. The conditions for detaining persons awaiting deportation form a central part of the agreement. Last Wednesday, the EU parliament approved the new EU-wide guidelines by a vote of 369-197.

The so-called “return directive” principally affects asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected and illegal immigrants. For a variety of reasons, it is not always possible to deport such people immediately. The mere process of obtaining the documents necessary for re-entering their countries of origin can take months or even years. In order to maintain control over the deportees during this waiting period, many are held in detention centers. In Germany, the period of detention can be as long as 18 months. German authorities justify the length of detention by the risk that refugees will not otherwise fulfill their “obligation to cooperate.” This “obligation to cooperate” means that the inmates are themselves held responsible for resolving the bureaucratic problems that might arise in their countries of origin.

In other EU countries, the maximum length of detention is substantially lower than in Germany: in Cyprus and France, for instance, it is 32 days and in Spain, 40 days. It is true that the new directive only establishes an upper limit to the length of detention: in theory, individual states can maintain their own more liberal arrangements. A lengthy period of detention could, however, quickly become the standard. For instance, after the Italian government announced some weeks ago that it would extend the usual period of detention to 18 months, the Spanish government complained that this would lead persons without legal residency to move to other countries out of fear.

Another point of contention in the negotiations was the issue of legal costs. In contrast to other countries, asylum candidates in Germany do not always receive financial assistance when they want to take legal steps to prevent their deportation. The German government wanted to preserve this policy, in order to avoid financial burdens and the burdening of the judicial system. On this point as well, Germany was able to have its way: according to the directive, states may provide financial assistance, but they are not obliged to do so.

For Karl Kopp, the EU policy expert of the German NGO Pro Asyl [“Pro Asylum”], this lack of legal protection represents one of the principal problems with the directive. “As a result many refugees will have no possibility whatsoever of making use of the few rights that they still have on paper,” Kopp told this reporter. In the Eastern European countries in particular, he said, the system of legal protections is extremely deficient. If they are not able themselves to come up with the money, the persons affected will be essentially helpless for want of legal advice and mastery of the local language.

In Germany, even unpaid volunteers find it hard to provide assistance to refugees seeking to avoid deportation. In Ingolstadt, for example, members of aid organizations have no possibility of gaining access to the detainees.

Up until the very close of the negotiations, the representatives of the EU states discussed providing special protection for children. In the final draft of the directive, they managed even to find warm words emphasizing the need to provide protection to minors. But the internment of minors is not prohibited. “The guidelines will not bring the sad story of the internment of children and teenagers to an end,” Karl Kopp says. “On the contrary, they will in fact serve to expand such practices.” Germany will thus be able to continue doing as it has done and intern teenagers as young as sixteen. According to Pro Asyl, in the last five years some 400 minors have been interned just in the transit area of the Frankfurt Airport alone. Moreover, the determination of the age of the youngsters is frequently just a matter of an estimation made by immigration authorities. Often the assessment that a refugee is at least 16 is made merely on the basis of an “inspection” of physical characteristics, such as the growth of pubic hair or the development of the testicles.

The European “return” directive constitutes an amazing sort of “compromise”: on the one hand, it lays out high-sounding principles; but on the other hand, the member states are entirely at liberty not to apply them. This is the case as concerns the length of detention, as well as the affording of legal aid and the protection of minors.

It is difficult to say just how many persons in total are being kept in detention centers in Germany, since the individual German states provide only extremely sparse information on the subject. Stefan Kessler of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany estimates that over the course of a year anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 persons are detained. Some remain in detention only for a few days, others for many months. Even before their deportation, the refugees are thus marginalized from the surrounding society and required to live under the most miserable conditions. The detainees are forced to stay in their cells for most of the day: in many cases, up to 22 hours a day. This can mean several persons sharing just a few cubic meters, including the toilet and the washing facilities. Meals are brought to the cells three times a day. For all their other needs or wishes, detainees have to appeal to the guards.

In some of the prisons, such as the one in Büren, inmates have the possibility of working outside of their cells. Enterprises have them perform various sorts of work and pay up to 15 euros per hour for their services. Of those 15 euros, however, barely two euros go to the inmates themselves. The rest goes to the prison budget. Nonetheless, the refugees do not get to enjoy their stay in the German detention centers for free. They must themselves pay the related costs — which can run as high as 80 euros a day. To the extent that they are able to come up with the money, the deportees must also pay the costs of their own deportation.

The Berlin Anti-Racist Initiative regularly documents the terrible consequences of the German deportation system in its reports on “German Asylum Policy and Its Deadly Consequences.” Between 1993 and 2007, some 56 persons committed suicide in German detention centers.

One of these persons was the Kurd Mustafa Alcali. Alcali first came to Germany when he was 14 years old. Ten years later, he left for Iraq, where he joined the Kurdish separatist movement PKK. There he was arrested and turned over to Turkish authorities. Despite still suffering from the effects of his traumatic period of incarceration, after his release he had to do his military service in the Turkish army. Alcali deserted from the army and in 2004 he fled Turkey, returning to his family in Germany. In Germany, however, he was unable to obtain a long-term residency permit. When, in May 2007, German authorities ordered Alcali deported, he doused himself with gasoline in the middle of the street and threatened to kill himself. At this point, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where doctors confirmed that he was at a high risk of committing suicide. Nonetheless, German immigration authorities managed to have him returned to prison. After what appears to have been just a single interview, the prison psychiatrist determined that there was no risk of Alcali committing suicide. He received no further medical attention. In June 2007, Alcali took his life in a German detention center.

An earlier version of this article appeared in German in issue number 24/08 of the Berlin weekly Jungle World. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.