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Deportation As An Election Issue In Germany


German voters go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves a fourth term. Many Germans are palpably unhappy over her refugee policy. And candidates seeking to capitalize on voter anger promised more deportations. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, that's far more difficult than those candidates suggest.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This former prison in Bueren is at near capacity, with more than 130 male migrants waiting to be taken to the airport and deported. It's the largest such detention center in Germany. The director, Nicolas Rinoesl, says the doors here are still the old prison ones.


NELSON: With heavy latches and locks, the rooms are more inviting.

NICOLAS RINOESL: I always compare it with a youth hostel standard if you look at the furniture, for example. You have the TV. You have a fridge.

NELSON: And pots, for migrants who prefer to cook their own meals with ingredients bought at the store here.

Residents are free to move around inside the walls and visit with family. They also have a soccer field and gym, a game room and Internet as well as robust medical and dental care. Rinoesl says the offerings are linked to a European Court of Justice ruling three years ago. It also mandated migrants awaiting deportation in EU countries no longer be housed with convicts, the director says.

RINOESL: Deportation custody must be more liberal than criminal custody because it's not a punishment. It's just to make sure that they leave the country.

NELSON: State governments haven't been thrilled about the detention centers. The money to run the centers comes from their budgets. And after the European court order, the German states decided to close all but six of them. Instead, they have focused on persuading migrants who don't qualify for asylum to leave voluntarily, offering money and assurances they can return if they secure a visa. Berlin was one of the German states that closed its deportee detention center, says Martin Pallgen, a spokesman for the local interior ministry.

MARTIN PALLGEN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says more than 12,000 migrants in Berlin who would have faced deportation agreed to leave voluntarily in 2016 and the first half of this year. That's four and a half times the number who were forcibly deported during that time. But not having a detention center soon caused problems. Die Welt newspaper reported police in Berlin were forced to let 40 Turkish deportees go last year. At the last minute, the Turkish government refused to take them back, and the German authorities had no place to legally house them.

Rinoesl, the Bueren Center director, says deportation orders are increasing after last December's terror attack in Berlin by a rejected asylum-seeker from Tunisia.

RINOESL: And it's often that we don't have even enough places.

NELSON: He says he's been given money to build 35 more rooms. And three new centers are scheduled to be opened in other German states. But the German interior ministry estimates more than 200,000 migrants here qualify for deportation. So even that expansion won't be enough.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bueren.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSGUS' "SUPERHUMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.