Migrant Crime in Germany: The Lost Sons of North Africa

Der Spiegel, June 9, 2017

Youssef Chahed and Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel and Tunisia’s head of state, Youssef Chahed. (Credit Image: © face to face via ZUMA Press)

The other inmates are still sleeping when Samir, 36, is awakened by the guards. It is 5:30 a.m. on a day in early April, and the sun hasn’t come up yet. He is told to dress quietly before police officers wearing black balaclavas take the Tunisian national into the courtyard of the Dresden correctional facility.

Samir’s brown hair is cut short, and his beard is full. He is wearing a red down vest and jeans. A black Mercedes van is waiting in the courtyard to take him on his last trip through Germany.

They drive to the Leipzig/Halle airport, from which Samir is to be deported. Leipzig has developed into a hub for deportations, with more than 2,100 foreigners flown out of its airport last year.

Germania charter flight ST 2828, which is to take Samir and 16 other deportees to Tunisia, is accompanied by 67 federal police officers, two doctors and an interpreter. The words “Germany Escort” are printed on their cases. The airport’s Terminal A was long used by the US Army as a stopover for soldiers being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, but is now a regular starting point for deportation flights. A group of Tunisians, heavily guarded by the police, are sitting in the waiting area and two blue portable toilets have been set up outside the entrance. Prisoners who need to use the restroom remain handcuffed, with a police officer keeping his foot in the door. When one of the prisoners complains about the handcuffs, an officer gruffly instructs him to “try harder, my good man.”

The officers are especially cautious with Tunisians. Many of the deportees resist or injure themselves to avoid being sent out of the country. There have been cases of detainees swallowing the batteries from their cell phones, while others have stuck razor blades in their mouths or suddenly pulled box cutters from their belts. As a result, three “personal air escorts” are assigned to guard each Tunisian.

Samir is required to undress completely for a full body search. A doctor examines all cavities on the lookout for items the detainee may be attempting to smuggle.

Afterward, Samir seems calm, to the point that officers have chosen not to keep him in handcuffs. “In Tunisia, I had no hope and no future,” he says. In 2008, he boarded a boat operated by traffickers from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy, where he lived for a year before traveling to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. He arrived in Germany in May 2014 where he applied for asylum. He says he had wanted to begin a new life in Germany and had hoped to find work. In Tunisia, he had left school at the age of 12 and worked for a hairdresser, but he has no other skills. When questioned in court, he said that he began regularly smoking hashish when he was 10.

The authorities denied his asylum application, but he was not deported, instead being given a certificate of suspension from deportation. He became a drug dealer at the main train station in Dresden, was addicted to crystal meth and drank seven to 10 bottles of beer or a bottle of vodka every day. Unfortunately for him, some of those to whom he sold hashish were plainclothes police officers. In July 2016, a court in Dresden convicted him of multiple theft and drug offenses and he was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison. Authorities believed that his drug addiction made it likely that he would commit crimes again in the future.

Flight ST 2828 takes off for Enfidha at 12:20 p.m. He is “fed up with Germany,” says Samir shortly before departure. His European dream has come to an end.

A Traumatic Night

No other group of foreigners has fallen into disrepute in Germany in recent years as much as young men from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. In 2016, only 2.4 percent of asylum seekers came from these North African countries, and yet 11 percent of immigrants suspected of committing a crime are from the Maghreb region. In Cologne, random samples showed that in 2015, more than 40 percent of migrants from the Maghreb committed robbery or theft within the first year of their arrival, says criminal division chief Thomas Schulte, who headed the investigations after the 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne.

It was that traumatic night that permanently altered Germany’s view of the refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom had arrived in the country in the months prior. The image of the malevolent refugee was born that night. Most of those suspected of having molested and robbed women were North Africans, or “Nafris,” a slang term the police use to refer to habitual offenders from North Africa. That term, too, became controversial after police stopped hundreds of young foreigners they suspected of being “Nafris” during the most recent New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne.

In Cologne and Düsseldorf, in particular, law enforcement has been struggling with criminals from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for years, with police having investigated 400 suspects from the Maghreb region in 2016 alone. Recently, though, it has become clear how many North Africans commit offenses elsewhere as well. In Saxony, most migrant repeat offenders are from one of the Maghreb countries and North Africans dominate the drug trade in the neighborhood surrounding the Frankfurt train station. In the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, a group of migrants committed so many robberies in such a short amount of time that local authorities formed a task force focusing on migrant repeat offenders, with many of the suspects having come from the North African coast. The police believe that one reason for the declining number of criminal offenses in Karlsruhe has to do with the falling number of migrants in the city.

Many of the criminal migrants are repeat offenders. A 34-year-old Moroccan who allegedly raped a woman in a bathroom in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn entertainment district in December had a criminal record, and yet the local authorities felt they were not in a position to deport him. In fact, only 660 Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians were deported in 2016, even though deportation orders had been issued for close to 9,000 of them. In response, the federal government now intends to speed up deportations.

The German parliament, the Bundestag, tightened asylum law once again last week. The maximum duration of pre-deportation custody is being increased from four to 10 days, while rules governing pre-deportation detention and surveillance of those considered to be threats have been eased. The aim is to thwart a rejected asylum seeker like Tunisian national Anis Amri, who committed the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in December. But it isn’t quite that simple. Many North Africans have destroyed their papers, some have gone into hiding, and their native countries have proven uncooperative.

Overwhelmed

Germany’s police officers and authorities have been, in many respects, overwhelmed by the criminals from the lower classes of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The young men often have a criminal record when they arrive in Germany, after having been street thieves or drug dealers in cities like Casablanca and Algiers. “Many apparently did not go to school and some can’t even write their own names,” says Jörg Grethe, head of the Karlsruhe task force. Unlike Georgians, the North Africans are not usually members of gangs, he says, with most of the men having met in refugee shelters.

Many are drug addicts, say investigators. They are often so high on alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs that they become insensitive to pain and adopt a “devil-may-care attitude,” says criminal investigator Schulte, who headed the “Nafri” police project in 2013, an extensive analysis of offenders from the Maghreb countries. He characterizes these offenders as being “highly likely to commit violent acts,” ruthlessly using knives during their robberies, injuring victims or police officers. They often use false identities, refuse to cooperate during interrogations and rarely exhibit remorse, Schulte says, adding: “This reveals a high degree of contempt for our legal system.”

Until early 2016, more than a dozen young North African offenders lived in communal housing at the Wiesbaden correctional facility. But when they began to run riot and demolish their rooms, they had to be moved to adult prisons. Some had swallowed pieces of spoons or glass, according to prison management and many of them appear not to care about anything. One reason is their lack of a future in Germany: Less than 4 percent of asylum applications filed by Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians are approved.

Trying His Own Luck

Abdul, 19, is sitting in his blue prison uniform in the visitors’ room at the Wittlich juvenile detention center in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It is a small room with one window, a table and a few chairs. It is drizzling outside. Abdul and a Syrian, whose identity is questionable, are slated to trial the next day, having been charged with assault and theft, among other offenses. They allegedly attacked and robbed a man who was asleep at the main train station in the western city of Trier, during which the victim fell into the track bed and was injured.

Abdul has been in pretrial detention for the last six months, and it isn’t the first time. He has a previous conviction for theft. In his last trial, the juvenile court judge gave the Moroccan one last chance and placed him on probation, so that he could complete a training program as a metalworker. She must have seen potential in the young man, and perhaps she also pitied him.

Abdul says he was 10 when he left his village in Morocco. Without any money or belongings, he spent half a day walking on a dusty road toward Fez, a city in northern Morocco. At first, he was afraid that his father would catch him and beat him, but eventually Abdul realized that no one was looking for him – not his stepmother, who didn’t like him, and not his father, who wanted to please his new wife. In Fez, Abdul stowed away on a train bound for the coast. After that, he lived on the street near the Spanish enclave of Melilla for a while.

He eventually met traffickers who gave him a job. Working at night, he helped make and paint wooden dividers and secretly install them in parked trucks. Several people could hide in the space behind the dividers and when the police shined their flashlights inside the trucks, they usually fell for the trick. The boy saw many Moroccans leave for Europe: “Most of them are now in Luxembourg and have a lot of money,” he believes.

Abdul eventually decided to try his own luck. He hung onto the undercarriage of a postal service vehicle and made it onto a ferry to Malaga, Spain. “That was a beautiful moment,” he says.

In Spain, he was arrested for theft and sent to a home for unaccompanied, underage refugees. Then he went to France, where he spent most of his time “begging and living on the street,” says Abdul, sometimes finding a bed in a homeless shelter. Ultimately, he says, he wanted to “see what it was like in Germany” and on a July day in 2013, he boarded a train bound for Frankfurt am Main. In Saarbrücken, just past the border, police detained him and took him to a home for underage refugees; he was 15 at the time. He has had very little schooling, but he speaks French and Spanish “pretty well” and also claims to have learned German relatively quickly. “I’m not stupid,” says Abdul. His attorney Sven Collet, a public defender who has represented young North African in court for many years, says that he is a “clever guy,” compared to many others. “When I get out of here, I really want to make something of myself,” says Abdul.

Trying to Help

Mimoun Berrissoun, 30, wants to help young offenders. The Cologne social worker with Moroccan roots launched an award-winning project called 180 Grad Wende, or “180-Degree Turnaround,” which focuses on keeping young migrants away from a life of crime and preventing them from becoming radicalized. The social workers, who speak Arabic and Turkish, run a counseling center in the Kalk neighborhood of Cologne and spend a lot of time in the streets, also trying to interact with North Africans. “We know many of the known troublemakers,” says Berrissoun. Many of them were only recruited into a life of crime once they arrived in Germany, he says. Without prospects for the future, they become easy targets for professional criminals, he explains.

That’s why Berrissoun would like to launch a pilot project with a select group of young men, “boys who are truly motivated.” The concept is an incentive system, in which the young men would collect points and eventually be rewarded with the right of residence. Participants would receive a point for passing the German test, for example, and another for finding a traineeship. He is aware of the legal complications, says Berrissoun. “Nevertheless, we have to start developing new ideas if we want to solve our crime problem.” Some accuse Berrissoun of being naive. “The alternative is to deport these kids and wait for them to return, when they’ll be even more difficult to reach,” he says in response. “I think it’s naive to believe that Europe can isolate itself. There will never be national borders without holes in them.”

Düsseldorf social worker Samy Charchira, who grew up in Morocco, is likewise an advocate of greater efforts at prevention and had appealed to North African cultural and sports associations in Germany to become more involved in youth outreach. “They speak the same language and are familiar with the young people’s culture and religion,” he says. “They can reach these boys much more quickly.” Of course, he admits, there are also hardened criminals who cannot be reintegrated into society. “Even social workers are ineffective when it comes to such people,” he says. But some young men simply need people to talk to and role models, someone they can look up to.

But many of the established North Africans who have lived in Germany for generations are just as uninterested as the rest of Germany in the troubled youth from poor neighborhoods in Morocco and Algeria. New Year’s Eve 2015 came as a “shock to everyone,” says Moncef Slimi, head of the German-Maghreb Institute for Culture and Media. “We need to develop more effective networks and create new projects.”

In 2014, the Interior Ministry of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia launched a prevention project called Klarkommen, or “Coping,” which currently counsels 70 young people in the cities of Dortmund, Cologne and Duisburg. The mentors speak the Maghreb dialects or French and they counsel the young men, in addition to helping them cope with government bureaucracy and German lessons. They also provide support to those returning home. When asked about the project’s success rate, ministry officials say that the program to promote language and vocational training has produced “good results,” and that the number of crimes committed by those receiving counseling has been “significantly reduced.”

Would more help and support have been enough to prevent Abdul from Trier from descending further into a life of crime? The sad truth is that he did receive plenty of support.

After he was detained by authorities on the train, he was taken in by the Don Bosco Helenenberg youth assistance center, operated by the Salesian order. The center is an attractive facility on a hill near Trier with residential groups for unaccompanied, underage refugees, basketball courts, a climbing wall and a weight gym. Abdul attended the school at the center but, as he puts it, “it was too difficult.” He was unable, at the age of 15, to suddenly develop a sense of responsibility and get up every morning to make up for almost a decade of lost schooling. Nevertheless, he was given a second chance and allowed to begin a training program as a metalworker. But he ended up in prison before finishing the program.

He even lived with a German foster family for a while, and they were “really okay,” as he says. But they too were unable to prevent him from drinking and getting into trouble. When Abdul appeared before the judge this time, he wasn’t granted the same leniency as before. Taking his past into account, the judge sentenced him to two years and six months in juvenile detention. “Germany gave these defendants the right to stay here, but they failed to appreciate it,” says the judge. “They have to learn to conform to our legal system.” But, she adds, it is an illusion to believe that they can achieve this on their own, given the way their life experiences have robbed them of the opportunity to mature.

Abdul’s deportation is now approaching. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t been recognized as a refugee, apparently not realizing that the lack of prospects is not grounds for asylum. “After all, the Moroccan Consulate General confirmed that my mother is dead,” he says. The German authorities are aware of this, he adds, and yet no one is helping him. “If I’m deported, I won’t stay in Morocco for more than a day,” he says. “What am I supposed to do there?”

Two Bad Options

Morocco is considered to be a politically stable country. In contrast to Tunisia, where the people overthrew dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Arab Spring did not lead to an uprising in Morocco and much of the population still supports King Mohammed VI. But the police in the country are notorious for their brutality. “They beat you right away,” says Abdul, “even children.”

Human rights organizations lament that torture is still used in the Maghreb countries, which helps explain why a law proposed by the German government seeking to categorize the Maghreb countries as safe countries of origin was defeated in the Bundesrat, the arm of German parliament representing the states. Those states in which the Greens or the Left Party are part of the governing coalition rejected the proposed legislation.

Algeria is dependent on petroleum and natural gas, and with prices for these commodities falling in recent years, the country’s economy has suffered. More than 10 percent of Algerians are unemployed, and the official youth unemployment figure is 25 percent. Often the only education children receive is learning how to become pickpockets on the street. The country, with its autocratic government, has also produced many Islamist extremists.

Many Tunisian men likewise believe they have only two options: to board a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa or join Islamic State. Six years after vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest in the town of Sidi Bouzid, triggering an uprising, youth unemployment in Tunisia is at 40 percent, and it’s even higher in remote regions. Tunisia’s economic plight is viewed as the primary reason why the country, despite being the cradle of the Arab spring, has become a breeding ground for terrorism. There is no other country in the world from which so many young men go to Syria, Iraq or neighboring Libya to fight as jihadists. The government in Tunis puts the number at about 3,000, while other estimates are closer to 7,000. About 800 of these fighters have reportedly returned to Tunisia – ticking time bombs filled with hatred for their country and its young democracy.

Stranded in the Wilderness

At 1:35 p.m. on a Wednesday in April, German charter flight ST 2828 from Leipzig lands in Enfidha-Hammamet, 100 kilometers south of Tunis. Samir, the deported drug dealer from Saxony, is one of the men on board. Just a few years ago, this was a lively town, with rows of taxis stretching along the palm tree-lined avenues and vendors selling dried fruit to vacationers. But ever since the 2015 terrorist attack on a beach near Sousse, about 50 kilometers south of the city, life has been extinguished here. The modern airport terminal looks like a spaceship stranded in the wilderness.

Tunisian border police remove the men from the aircraft. The muscle flexing of a longstanding police state begins in the small offices, often used for interrogations, along the airport’s endless corridors. The police officers question the returnees, presenting them with photos of Anis Amri and the perpetrator of the Nice terrorist attack, asking them about co-conspirators and how often they pray. Meanwhile, a few families wait outside in the arrivals hall for their lost sons. It is quiet and no one speaks; the families feel deeply ashamed of the returnees.

After nine-and-a-half hours, long after nightfall, the 17 men are finally allowed to leave the airport. They are quietly taken through a side entrance to a gas station, where three of the families are reunited with their sons. The others are placed on two buses headed for Sousse and Tunis, Samir among them. None of his family members was waiting for him at the airport.

Two days later, he is sitting in the courtyard of his parents’ pink, half-finished house. He looks pale, has a cold and is still wearing the clothes he wore when he was deported: jeans, a black-and-green sweatshirt and the bright red down vest, even though the temperature is 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

He hasn’t left the house yet. No one is to know that he has returned home after nine years in Europe – an offender, a deportee led away by the police. In the spring, there were demonstrations in Tunis against the returnees, with protesters holding up signs in broken German reading: “Angela Merkel, Tunisia is not the garbage of Germany.”

Now, Samir is keeping a low profile in his village on the edge of the desert. It’s an attractive place, with cacti and canyon-like cliff formations, which are sometimes used as a backdrop for films about the war in Afghanistan. But the idyllic surroundings are deceptive. There is no work, and half of the young adults living there have no prospects of ever finding a job.

‘What a Waste’

Samir is from El Guettar, an oasis settlement near the provincial capital of Kafsa. It is in phosphate mining region, with the phosphate being used to make fertilizer and laundry detergent. But it also contributes to high levels of radioactive heavy metals in the drinking water, which are blamed for the region’s high cancer rates.

There were workers’ uprisings here nine years ago, with Samir’s neighbors fighting against worker exploitation, the desecration of the environment and the regime of dictator Ben Ali. Because of the uprising, the Kafsa region is viewed as the nucleus of the Arab spring.

Samir was not one of the freedom fighters. He chose to go to Europe instead, becoming a “Harraga,” a local term for the refugees who burn their papers before boarding the boat for Lampedusa.

Nine years later, he is sitting in his parents’ living room like a stranger. With every sentence he grudgingly forces from his lips, it becomes clear that nothing he had claimed in Leipzig before his deportation was true. He claimed that he used his earnings in Germany to buy two taxicabs in Tunisia, and that he planned to expand the business in the future. He said that he saw a future for himself as a self-employed entrepreneur. And he also wanted to start a family. As it turns out, they were clearly the words of a braggart.

He still boasts about his days as a drug dealer. It was “a cool life,” he says, “full of drugs, money and women,” and adds: “What else could I have done, since they wouldn’t let me work?” He says that he took drugs for two years, which is why he had no scruples about selling the stuff. “It didn’t kill me, either. And if I didn’t sell it, someone else would.”

But when his mother, a determined woman in her late 50s with a brown scarf wrapped around her head, begins to speak, it becomes clear that Samir has returned as a failure – and that his family is unforgiving. The two taxis never existed. He also didn’t pay for the addition to his parents’ house. That was funded by his brother, who sends the family money every month – money he earns legally as a cook in the German state of Thuringia.

It appears that Samir has always taken the path of least resistance, first in Tunisia and later as a drug dealer in Zürich’s red-light district and then at the train station in Dresden. He hardly learned any German in nine years, avoids eye contact, is filled with rage and barks at his mother, telling her not to speak with the foreigners.

No one in the village looked forward to his return. “We had to borrow several thousand dollars from the neighbors so you could leave, and we still owe them the money today,” says his mother. “And you have the gall to return home empty-handed? What a waste.”

Stepped Up Deportations

The German-Tunisian Center for Jobs, Migration und Reintegration is located in the building of the Tunisia employment agency in the capital, Tunis. German Development Minister Gerd Müller dedicated the center in March.

For the past three months, employees of the German Society for International Cooperation have worked in the small office, helping Tunisians and returnees from Europe find jobs, offering them retraining and continuing education. Tunisians willing to emigrate are also given information about legal paths to employment or studying in Germany. Men like Samir are not eligible for the services provided by the center, partly funded by Germany. It only provides counseling to voluntary returnees, not criminals.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees also plans to set up youth centers in Morocco soon to accommodate underage migrants who have been deported from Germany, including offenders. But the centers are primarily intended for street children, according to a document. The centers will include schools, medical care and educational counseling. The Greens are critical of the plans, arguing that they promote the deportation of minors.

Since the New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has urged North African countries to cooperate more extensively. For years, German authorities faced significant hurdles in deporting rejected asylum seekers to the Maghreb. They often lacked documentation, and the countries of origin were in no hurry to issue replacement passports. Or they simply claimed that the deportees were not their citizens.

In February 2016, de Maizière and a delegation flew to North Africa, shaking hands with interior ministers and heads of state in Tunis, Algiers and Rabat. Things improved somewhat as a result. But as the Anis Amri case shows, North African authorities often continued dragging their feet in repatriating their citizens. In the Amri case, the Tunisians delayed his deportation for months by failing to issue documents for him. It was only on December 21, 2016 that the consulate general in Bonn confirmed that Amri was a Tunisian citizen – two days after he had murdered 12 people.

Whether the Tunisians are now plagued by a guilty conscience or the subtle threats following the attack are working, the fact is that the country took back 50 of its nationals in the first three months of this year, compared to only 8 in the same period last year. Germany was able to deport 207 people to Morocco and Algeria, more than 11 times as many as in the first quarter of 2016. According to the German Interior Ministry, cooperation with the Maghreb countries in deportations of threatening individuals has improved considerably.

One Good Deed

Afternoon has arrived in El Guettar. The muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer, and Samir is becoming entangled in confused theories. Anis Amri wasn’t driving the truck that slammed into a Berlin Christmas market, he claims, saying that it was all just a “big conspiracy” to “deport people like me back to Tunisia.” He is “finished with Europe,” says Samir. Then he grabs his red down vest and storms out of the house, without saying another word. What kind of a future does he have in Tunisia? His family will have to support him for the time being. Only once in his life, his mother says, did he do anything useful: donating a kidney to his ill sister.

Now, Samir’s mother comforts herself with the thought that at least her son hasn’t become an Islamist.

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