Asylum Entitlements Germany Considers Refugee Benefit Cuts

With billions of euros needed to pay the cost of housing asylum seekers in Germany, politicians are proposing reforms – but many lack detail.
Haggling over how best to support refugees.


Germany took in some 1.1 million refugees last year – by far the highest number since record keeping began in 1950. Their arrival has triggered several debates, not least on whether they should be allowed to access the country's famed cradle-to-grave welfare state. There have been calls from local, state and national politicians to reconsider extending the general benefits to asylum seekers and other migrants.

Most of these proposals, which include benefit cuts, so far have generated as many questions as answers.

Julia Klöckner of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democrats, for instance, is author of one proposal. The party’s top candidate in this year’s elections in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Ms. Klöckner is demanding “sanctions” for refugees unwilling to sign an agreement obligating them to accept the fundamental values of German society, such as gender equality.

But Ms. Klöckner has not specified exactly what her sanctions would entail.

No such agreement is required under Germany’s current law, which gives asylum seekers non-cash benefits and an allowance during their first 15 months in the country. Individuals receive €143 ($154) per month while adults sharing a household receive €129 each. Families also collect between €85 and €92 a month for each child, depending on age.

The nearly 477,000 refugees who formally requested asylum in Germany in 2015 qualify for these benefits, according to federal government figures presented yesterday.

After 15 months, successful asylum applicants are eligible for nearly the same unemployment and social welfare benefits to which all Germans are entitled.

Last year, faced with an estimated $3.3 billion in costs to cover social welfare benefits for refugees, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also openly mulled benefit cuts.

But, like Ms. Klöckner, Mr. Schäuble has not provided details.

Until now, anyone who has been in Germany for a long time and is in need receives board and a roof over their head. Ulrich Schneider, social justice advocate

Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz made a more concrete proposal in Die Zeit newspaper, which he continues to advocate.

Under his proposal, migrants from other European Union countries and refugees legally recognized elsewhere in the E.U. would only receive benefits in Germany after working in the country for at least one year.

Mr. Scholz is convinced his proposal would stem the flow of refugees into Germany. He believes fewer asylum seekers would come to Germany if they only received benefits from the country processing their asylum request.

But Ulrich Schneider, an advocate for the poor with social justice group Paritätische Gesamtverband, is concerned over the consequences of Mr. Scholz’s proposal.

“It is improbable that Romanians and Bulgarians who live here would leave again,” he said. “And certainly very few refugees recognized in other parts of Europe, and only receiving public benefits there, would leave.”

Instead, Germany would likely have “more homeless, more illegal workers and presumably also more criminals in German cities,” he said.

Mr. Schneider is also unsure over how much legal latitude actually exists for cutting benefits. In early December, he notes, a federal court clarified that German municipalities must pay social welfare to migrants from other E.U. member states after six months.

“Until now, anyone who has been in Germany for a long time and is in need receives board and a roof over their head,” said

Jürgen Bast, and asylum rights expert and professor at the University of Giessen.

But would the court’s decision also apply to refugees legally recognized in other member states, who qualify for benefits there?

Not according to Hamburg’s mayor. Mr. Scholz argues that freedom of movement within Europe does not guarantee a right to collect social welfare in Germany.

Although there is a lack of consensus over how to harmonize benefits like health insurance and retirement across Europe, there is more agreement on how to deal with poverty among immigrants.

But immigration researchers caution against placing too great of an emphasis on entitlements in influencing where migrants chose to live.

Anuscheh Farahat of the Max-Planck-Institute in Heidelberg says such factors only play a secondary role. “Most important is whether there is already a community from their home country,” he said.

Many Syrians come to Germany, for example, because of the existing Syrian community rather than the benefits.

But there may be other convincing arguments for reducing benefits for migrants. These have nothing to do with their personal reasons for coming to Germany, but rather with Germany’s own domestic politics.

If Mr. Scholz’s proposal did become law, for instance, it would make it that much easier to counter popular clichés about the mass influx of migrants coming to Germany to live off its benefits – and the backs of taxpayers. Since this simply would not be possible under his proposal, such accusations from right-wing populists would go nowhere, while acceptance of immigrants probably would surge.

Although there is a lack of consensus over how to harmonize benefits like health insurance and retirement across Europe, there is more agreement on how to deal with poverty among immigrants.

A precedent already exists in the form of E.U.-wide programs for jobless youth, which have existed for several years. The refugee crisis could be what brings Europe’s ministers responsible for social services closer together – in a similar way as the Euro crisis finally forged closer ties between Europe’s finance ministers.

The real question is are there benefits for foreign residents that could be reduced without thrusting them into poverty?

Certainly. But, just as in the case of benefit cuts for young unemployed Germans who decline a job offer, there is considerable debate over how deeply benefits can be reduced within minimum subsistence levels.

Benefits for children of foreign residents are one potential target for politicians.

That’s because migrants from other E.U. member states receive benefits for each child, whether or not their family resides in Germany. The Romanian father of a family of six, for example, would qualify for the equivalent of an entire monthly salary in Romania, even if his family all still lives there.

But despite the potential for abuse – which numerous studies have documented – it is worth remembering that Germany’s foreign residents to date have paid much more into the country’s social welfare system than they have collected.


Massive Influx of Refugees


Elisabeth Niejahr is a correspondent for Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]