BERLIN (AP) — German lawmakers on Friday approved a plan to declare Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia "safe countries of origin," a move aimed at making it easier to quickly return failed asylum-seekers from the three North African nations and to deter others from coming.
The government drew up the plan in January following a spike in new arrivals from the three countries and the New Year's Eve robberies and sexual assaults in Cologne, in which many suspects were of North African origin.
Parliament's lower house voted 424-143 Friday to back the measure, with three lawmakers abstaining. It still requires approval from the upper house, which represents Germany's 16 states.
The country last year declared several Balkan nations, whose citizens are barely ever granted asylum, safe countries. That effectively reverses the burden of proof, with a country assumed to be safe unless an asylum applicant can prove persecution in his or her case.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum-seekers in 2015 and is keen to see far lower numbers this year. Nearly 26,000 people from the three North African countries were registered.
"Applicants from these countries are, as a rule, not politically persecuted," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told lawmakers, even as he acknowledged concerns over the human rights situation.
In 2015, only 2.1 percent of applicants from the three countries were granted asylum. In this year's first quarter, that figure dropped to 0.7 percent, de Maiziere said — adding that many people don't even apply for asylum.
Declaring the countries safe will allow German authorities to reduce the time spent processing applications, he said. "We are also doing this in order to reduce the incentives to make an unsuccessful asylum application here," he added.
Opposition lawmakers argued that the government's move is unnecessary and irresponsible. "This has the disadvantage that the governments in North Africa will be given the feeling that human rights violations ... are OK," the Green party's Luise Amtsberg said.
The government will need at least some support from Amtsberg's party to get the measure through the upper house. Germany's only Green state governor looks set to back it.
Germany already considers Albania, Bosnia, Ghana, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montegro, Senegal and Serbia safe countries.