Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have received a backhanded compliment from Germany, Europe’s most industrialised and populous country. All three are “safe countries of origin” for the purposes of determining their nationals’ claim to asylum, according to a draft law passed by the lower house of the German parliament.
In other words, Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans enjoy safe enough conditions at home and must reconcile themselves to staying where they are. The three countries are neither a smashing success nor failure most foul. They are in-between.
The Maghreb In-Betweeners are just stable enough — even if sometimes a hair’s breadth from a truly parlous state — to be denied the special consideration accorded to Syrian refugees. Or to Iraqis with particularly piteous stories. Or to Afghans, though even they cannot automatically expect to get asylum in Europe any more.
The German law does not, of course, rule out sui generis appeals for refuge from individuals who face persecution of some sort in Tunis, Algiers and Rabat. Overall, however, the three countries are in-between the best of times and worst of times.
How else to read German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere’s remarkable admission that Algeria and Morocco are not democratic states, that human rights lapses may occur in all three Maghreb countries but that they are still safe enough for administrative reclassification?
In and of itself, de Maiziere’s statement contains nothing new and neither does the proposed law. The minister said pretty much the same thing in February when he visited the Maghreb. A mix of pleas, penalties and rewards was employed to persuade all three to take back failed asylum seekers. De Maiziere indicated that all three saw themselves as safe.
Apparently, German authorities had been working to that assumption anyway, right through 2015. According to data from its Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 2.1% of the approximately 26,000 people from the Maghreb who arrived in Germany last year were given asylum. That figure dropped to 0.7% in the first quarter of 2016.
Soon enough, the numbers will shrink further because fewer arrivals are being recorded from the Maghreb Three. According to BAMF data, more than 3,300 asylum seekers from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were registered in Germany in January. By March, it had dropped to 480.
This is thought to be the result of the public discussions that foreshadowed Germany’s plans to classify the Maghreb Three as safe countries. Now that it has all but happened — the upper house of parliament is still to approve the law — only the foolhardy can be expected seriously to try for asylum in Germany.
This is an act of administrative triage for a Germany that feels overwhelmed by more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015. Syrians’ need is deemed greater than that of Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans. Germany, so the reasoning goes, cannot take in everyone with a hard luck story.
Fair enough. The three Maghreb In-Betweeners are not being torn apart on sectarian lines such as in Iraq. They are not basket cases as Libya is. Their nationals do not face the bloodletting and the bombs driving the Syrians to seek sanctuary in foreign lands. There is a certain logic in weeding out asylum seekers from countries that are a whole lot more settled than Syria. Europe cannot take the huddled masses from around the world and, right now, its focus remains, as it must, on Syrians.
The Maghreb in-Betweeners face different challenges, however, and none so much as Tunisia. Five years after the uprising that swept away the old order, joblessness and inflation remain high, economic growth low and hope for the future is in short supply.
In December, a European Commission paper noted that five years after the “Arab spring”, “the performance of the Maghreb economies remains much weaker than in the previous ten years… All these countries, and in particular Tunisia, are very dependent on the EU economy so that the persistent weakness in the latter has continued to limit their capacity to recover.”
Tunisia needs help — trade and economic cooperation agreements with Europe would mean contracts, jobs and foreign exchange — and perhaps, Europe could consider a plan that allows limited economic migration for hard-to-fill jobs from countries such as Tunisia. The remittances sent home by workers would help Tunisia, as would the broader experience they gain.
This would make Europe a more realisable opportunity for dreamers everywhere and reduce the impulse to seek asylum. It would be in Europe’s interest to help build a stable Tunisia, the only secular democracy born of the “Arab spring”.