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Germany moves to deport Afghan asylum seekers, group says

BERLIN — About 50 Afghans who had their asylum bids in Germany rejected were being deported on Wednesday, a pro-refugee group said, as the government works to reduce the number of migrants remaining in the country.

A plane with the deportees on board was supposed to leave Frankfurt airport Wednesday at 6:55 p.m. local time, refugee group Pro Asyl said. Hundreds of protesters chanted slogans at the airport's departure terminal asking to have deportations to Afghanistan halted.

The German government said earlier that it would only confirm deportations after they happened, but officials had not verified after the plane's departure time if any had taken place.

After allowing in 890,000 migrants last year, Germany has sought to manage the influx by speeding up the asylum process for the applicants most likely to receive it, such as Syrians fleeing civil war.

Authorities in turn have accelerated the expulsion of unlikely candidates for asylum, such as people seeking to escape poverty in the Balkans.

Afghans have fallen somewhere in the middle, with some areas of the country considered safe and some not. But few have been deported because Germany lacked a proper agreement with Afghanistan. Instead, many have been convinced to go home voluntarily with financial incentives.

But the German and Afghan governments signed a memorandum of understanding on deportations a few weeks ago, paving the way for the several dozen who were to be sent home on Wednesday night.

Petra Haubner, a lawyer from the Bavarian city of Passau, told The Associated Press that a 20-year-old Afghan client was on his way to Frankfurt to be deported after being detained by police at a Bavaria shelter.

The client, who Haubner did not name, arrived in Germany as a minor in 2011. His asylum request first was rejected in 2012 because authorities did not see enough proof of his individual persecution by the Taliban.

After several failed court appeals, he had been living in Germany on short-term "tolerated status."

On Wednesday night, Germany's federal constitutional court temporarily suspended the deportation of another Afghan in a last-minute decision. The court said the 29-year-old man could remain to await the outcome of an appeal of his rejected asylum plea.

Germany has tried to convince rejected Afghan asylum seekers to leave voluntarily by offering financial incentives upon their return home. Some 3,000 asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan this year as part of the repatriation program, Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth said.

Only 18 Afghan citizens were deported in the first half of 2016, according to government figures.

More than 12,500 Afghans have received orders to leave the country, but not yet been deported.

Critics say sending people back to Afghanistan puts them in danger because of the Taliban's control of some parts of the country and frequent suicide bombings. The German government claims that migrants only will be sent back to safe regions.

Sweden, which has been another top European destination for migrants, deported 11 Afghans earlier this week, police spokesman Mattias Lindholm said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said in recent weeks that Germany needs to toughen its stance and ensure that migrants who are refused permission to stay do leave the country.

"We need a national effort to return those who are rejected — that is undisputed and we are working on that at present with great vigor," Merkel told a conference of her conservative bloc's youth wing in October.

The majority of the 890,000 migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015 were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The country has been grappling with the integration of the many newcomers and hostility toward migrants has been on the rise.

This year, the number of asylum seekers has declined sharply, with some 230,000 people having arrived in the country by the end of September.

David Keyton contributed reporting from Stockholm, Sweden.