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Europe ships war refugees back home

Germany gets tougher on Afghans, Iraqis, and Kosovars.

Aferdite Hasanaj looks like any of her high school friends. But there's a difference: Every three months for the past 13 years, since her family fled Kosovo on the eve of the Yugoslavia war, she's had to ask permission to remain in Germany.

As a refugee whose asylum claim was rejected, she was subject to expulsion any time. In April, the government told her to go back "home" to Kosovo, squashing her dreams of going to college in Frankfurt.

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"I've never been to Kosovo, I can't speak the language, don't know the culture," the 17- year-old said at a recent rally held to protest her expulsion. "The feeling of not having the right to belong fills me with despair."

Across Germany, 220,000 war refugees denied asylum have shared Aferdite's plight. But in a backdrop of public wariness about their perceived drain on the social system and an improved political situation in their countries, the government is speeding their return.

"How can a country expel a child who's been here for 13 years, who is good in school?" says Volker Ludwig of the GRISP Theater in Berlin, which staged a play about the deportation of a family. "Such a practice is unique in Europe, and it's outrageous."

This summer, Germany's 16 state interior ministers voted to hasten the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And in May, the state of Hamburg began repatriating Afghans, saying that stability there had returned.

The trend is spreading across Europe, especially in countries with former liberal asylum policies such as Holland, Norway, Denmark, and England. Governments are implementing plans for faster and more efficient returns of refugees.

"There is a new intensity in the harshness of the repatriation," says Karl Kopp, European representative of Pro Asyl, a Frankfurt-based advocacy group for refugees.

There's a boom, says Mr. Kopp, in so-called "departure institutions," where refugees with failed asylum claims receive counseling meant to prepare them to leave voluntarily in exchange for receiving a stipend and food.

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"The thinking in these institutions is: 'what can I do when I can't expel somebody?' " says Kopp. "The only way is to make life more difficult - to limit the people's freedom of movement, to go as far as possible so that the people have no choice but want to leave."

Government officials stress that those denied asylum know from the beginning that they will not receive legal status. Doing so "would send a signal to those who want to come to Germany: to stay here permanently, all you have to do is postpone getting your permit," says Wilfried Schmaeing of the Interior Ministry.

Germany's asylum regulations are considered among Europe's toughest. Until recently, only victims of state persecutions could receive asylum. Those fleeing civil wars like in Kosovo received a "tolerated status" because the persecution they had suffered did not come directly from the state. The new immigration act that went into effect this year loosened the regulations, recognizing persecutions by nonstate agents such as those suffered in Kosovo. At the same time, Germany has become more efficient and less human in sending home those denied asylum, critics say.

"The issue is becoming very politicized," says Patricia Coelho of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles in London. "Politicians are concerned about sharing with their public that they are being tough on asylum."

In England, "uncooperative" asylum seekers with rejected claims, with the exception of those with families, now see their welfare benefits withdrawn. In Holland, refugees denied asylum can now be denied social support after 28 days. Last year, Norway started charging hundreds of special officers with returning asylum seekers. Refugees denied asylum can also be denied access to the labor market or social protection.

"There is a tendency for industrialized nations to develop a policy to help induce or force people who've not been granted any kind of status to repatriate," says Ms. Coelho. Those asylum seekers, she says "form a growing segment of vulnerable, poor and marginalized people in European societies."

Although there are fewer and fewer asylum seekers in Europe, those asking for asylum are seeing their claims denied in greater number, says Ms. Coelho.

In Frankfurt, Europe's most multiethnic city, Aferdite's classmates rallied to her side. And Aferdite will most likely be able to stay at least until she finishes high school because a German family has committed to support her financially here. But her mother and two siblings are most likely going to be expelled next year.