Late in the evening on Tuesday, July 3 a charter plane took off from Munich airport carrying 69 passengers bound for Kabul, Afghanistan.
Bavaria’s Interior Ministry released a statement announcing that 51 of those on board were rejected asylum seekers and that the “lion’s share of this collective repatriation” were from the southern state of Bavaria.
Most of them were “voluntary repatriations,” the statement said. But that’s not how 26-year-old Mursalin saw it.
“I’m devastated. I’m worried. I’m afraid,” the Afghan asylum seeker told CNN on the eve of his planned deportation flight. (Mursalin is not his real name: He asked for anonymity because, as a Christian convert, he fears retaliation if he is sent back to Afghanistan.)
“I did everything Germany asked of me,” he said. “I am no criminal. I have no links to any terror organization. I provided them with all the documents they need. My passport, documentation. And all I got was this letter telling me I would be deported on Tuesday.”
One man deported to Afghanistan on the July 3 flight has since taken his own life, according to German Interior Ministry spokesman Harald Neymanns on Wednesday. His body was found on July 10 and a police investigation into his death is underway, Neymanns said.
After embracing hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015, Germany is now firmly closing the door on asylum seekers.
The southern state of Bavaria is taking the lead with the strong backing of Federal Interior Minister and former state premier Horst Seehofer, who recently triggered a crisis in government over his plans to reject some asylum seekers directly at the southern border.
Presenting his controversial “migration master plan” in Berlin on July 10, Seehofer joked about the July 3 repatriation, smiling as he said, “On my 69th birthday of all days, 69 people – it wasn’t ordered by me – were sent back to Afghanistan.”
Following Wednesday’s news of one deportee’s death, Seehofer is facing calls to resign from some opposition politicians.
In Bavaria, police forces are being bolstered, more asylum claims rejected and deportations ramped up, particularly for Afghans.
On June 6, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that any remaining restrictions on deportations to Afghanistan would be lifted and all failed asylum seekers would now be eligible. Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann believes that change is the correct one.
“Fundamentally it’s clear. Anyone who has lost their asylum status has to leave. We say that unambiguously to all of those affected,” Herrmann told CNN.
“Previously, we only repatriated Afghan refugees that had been rejected at a federal level i.e. those who had committed a crime, had links to terror or refused to prove their identity. Now, we have received approval from Berlin that others can also be deported.”
“So in the days ahead we will see larger scale deportations to Afghanistan taking place,” Herrmann said. “Other federal states that do not deport to Afghanistan – we consider that to be wrong.”
’I have been a refugee my whole life’
After refugees from Syria, Afghan nationals represent the highest number of asylum applicants in Europe, according to the European Asylum Support Office, often traveling from Iran to Turkey to reach Greece as the doorway to the European Union.
Unlike Syria, however, Afghanistan is deemed safe enough for the repatriation of asylum seekers, despite regular bombings in Kabul and violent clashes between Taliban and Afghan government forces.
In 2017 more than 3,000 people died and more than 7,000 were wounded due to violence in the country, with a growing number of attacks targeting the country’s Shia Muslim minority, most of whom are of Hazara ethnicity, according to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.
Afghan asylum seekers in Europe must prove through extensive documentation that they are persecuted at home in order to be accepted as refugees in Europe.
For Mursalin, that was an impossible request because, although his family belongs to the ethnic Hazara minority in Afghanistan, he says he has never set foot in the country. He says he was born in Iran but was never granted citizenship because his family had fled to the country as refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
“I have been a refugee my whole life. And I will still be one in Afghanistan, if I have to go back,” he told CNN in fluent German.
Mursalin says he has spent three years in Germany and recently been offered an apprenticeship as a carer after first volunteering in the role. He felt so at home and accepted that he decided to convert to Christianity, he says.
“I love Germany. I want to stay here and give something back to the society that took me in.”
He says he’s now worried that he’ll be targeted as a Christian convert: “I cannot even fathom what will happen to me in Afghanistan.”
’Afghanistan is a test run’
Even cases where an asylum seeker has documented evidence of political persecution at home and a strong connection to Germany have been rejected, says immigration lawyer Philipp Pruy, who says he has seen a surge in denied asylum applications.
“The Bavarian government wants to prove that it is taking a particularly hard stance on refugees,” Pruy told CNN. “There is substantial pressure on migration offices to deport people – to prepare them to be deported, get documentations prepared and work with Afghanistan to obtain passport replacement.”
Sami is a 20-year-old Afghan whose asylum claim has been rejected twice by Bavarian authorities and is one of those eligible for deportation under the new rules. He asked CNN not to use his full name, fearing his case for asylum in Germany would be adversely affected.
He says his family was targeted by the Taliban because his brother worked as a car mechanic with German NATO forces in Kunduz.
When his brother and father were captured by Taliban forces, his mother bundled him out of the house through the window and urged him to flee to Iran, Sami says.
“I really did not want to flee my country,” Sami told CNN. “I wanted to stay but I had no choice. I wanted to stay alive.”
He says he spent a month in Iran before his aunt helped organize his escape to Germany via Turkey and Greece.
Sami believed that Germany would accept his application, especially because his brother had worked with German forces. Like Mursalin, Sami speaks fluent German and was so popular at his college that 12,000 students signed a petition imploring Germany to accept his asylum application.
“They know the danger he will be exposed to when Germany sends him back to Afghanistan,” said his classmate Melissa Barna who helped organize the petition. “We are worried. He is one of us.”
Pruy believes that the expanded deportation of Afghan asylum seekers is only the beginning and that other countries deemed “safe” will soon see repatriation flights.
“We are now seeing the first signs, with asylum seekers from Iraq getting rejected the same way as Afghans,” Pruy said. “Afghanistan is a test run.”
CNN’s Judith Vonberg and Kevin Tschierse contributed to this report.