The German government has for the first time deported Afghan asylum seekers, sending 34 back to Kabul on a chartered flight last night. Hundreds of protesters — both Afghan and German — marched against the deportations at Frankfurt Airport where the flight departed.
The migrants' requests for asylum had been denied.
Protesters complained that the government action is misguided, given that Afghanistan is still at war with the Taliban, which effectively controls much of the country. Protesters say there is no mechanism in place to ensure the safety of the deportees once they return.
Other German critics accused Chancellor Angela Merkel's government of using such deportations to win back voters who are leaning towards the nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is steadily gaining in the polls.
"[Interior Minister] Thomas de Maiziere apparently panicked because of the AfD and now is playing the strongman," German Greens MP Omid Nouripour told public broadcaster ARD. "He put on this show instead of addressing a bitterly serious issue."
At a news conference this morning in Berlin, de Maiziere defended the deportations.
"When someone doesn't have a right to international protection and is deportable, then he must leave Germany unless there are concrete obstacles to that deportation," de Maziere said.
He added that voluntary repatriation is the German government's preferred way of getting rid of migrants who don't qualify for asylum, but that people won't leave unless they see the German government is serious about deportations.
De Maiziere said 50 people had originally been scheduled to leave on last night's charter flight, but that some received a last-minute stay from German courts while others could not be found because they went into hiding.
The interior minister said the deportees who were on board arrived in Kabul this morning and were received by Afghan refugee officials, the International Organization for Migration and German embassy personnel.
"Of those 34 [on the plane], about a third were criminals," he added. "They'd been convicted of theft, robbery, narcotics offenses and even rape and homicide."
An Afghan man arrested earlier this month in the rape and murder of a Freiburg medical student wasn't among them because he needs to be tried here, de Maiziere said. The Afghan, who is said to be 20, has not been identified in German media as per privacy laws here.
The interior minister said the suspect had been sentenced in 2013 in Greece for mugging a young woman and pushing her off a cliff, but that he was paroled last October. When he failed to report to his probation officer, Greek police issued a national warrant to arrest him rather than an international one, something de Maiziere described as "especially frustrating."
The lack of an international warrant meant the suspect didn't show up in any European-wide data base.
Tens of thousands of Afghan migrants were allowed into Germany among the wave of asylum seekers that reached Europe via the Mediterranean in 2015. Germany has since been less welcoming, attempting to distinguish between refugees from conflict zones and so-called economic migrants who come to Europe in search of a higher standard of living.
So far, most of the Afghan repatriations from Germany have been voluntary, with Merkel's government offering financial incentives to Afghans whose asylum claims were rejected and who agree to return to Kabul.
But German officials say they plan to forcibly return more of the 12,000 Afghans living in Germany who've been issued deportation orders.