Migrant Crisis Discord Over Tightening Refugee Benefits

Germany remains divided on limiting refugee benefits and speeding up deportations. But other countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have already gone much further.
The refugee flood shows now sign of abating.

Just four months ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to help refugees with a “friendly face.” But in the intervening time, willingness to help has been declining, above all in her own party.

"Germany cannot show unlimited charity," said Thomas de Maizière, Ms. Merkel’s interior minister and a member of her Christian Democratic Union. His comments came this week at a conference on refugees organized by the World Council of Churches.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees still arrive every day in Germany. With each new refugee, the debate grows louder about how to limit their influx and how to swiftly deport those with no hope of being allowed to remain.

Other European countries are already doing their best to make themselves unattractive for asylum seekers, in case Germany goes for “Plan B” and shuts its borders. No one wants to become the new hot destination for asylum seekers.

The German government has been tightening up its asylum laws following the surge in refugees. It approved a first set of new regulations in October and continues to discuss a second batch, known as the Asylum Package II, to further accelerate the processing of asylum claims.

The proposed new measures would allow, for instance, a swift deportation of applicants from safe countries and those who destroy their travel documents or give “obviously false information,” as well as limit the medical conditions that can delay deportation.

When it comes to cracking down on economic migrants, other countries have been less squeamish than the Germans.

But the second bundle of asylum laws, announced in November, has faced opposition. Due to be signed off this week, it has been blocked by various disputes in the governing right-left coalition, this time over family reunification. Ms. Merkel’s party wants to abolish this right for some migrants – namely those who have no right to asylum and are not refugees, but who may be in danger in their home country.

The Christian Democrats accuse the Social Democratic Party, their junior coalition partners, of blocking the new measures. Peter Tauber, the CDU general secretary, said the Social Democrats wanted to slow the refugee influx, but in fact were blocking any effective measures. The SPD insists that Syrian refugees must be exempt from the new family reunification rules.

The refugee situation is causing bitter disputes within the parties as well as between them. This weekend, around 50 backbench members of Ms. Merkel’s own party signed a letter, calling on her to close the borders. Peter Uhl, one of the CDU members who signed the letter, has been calling on the chancellor to start controlling German borders "immediately" and turn back those refugees without a chance of receiving asylum directly at the Austrian border.

The letter prompted a ferocious crackdown from senior party figures, who insisted on party unity ahead of crucial regional elections in March. “People just need to keep their big mouths shut,” was one of the milder phrases heard at a key meeting of Christian Democratic parliamentarians on Monday afternoon.


And the registration lines show no sign of becoming shorter.


To get a better grip on the large number of asylum applications from North African countries, the interior ministry has ordered the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees speed up the processing of applications from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. People applying from those countries are already unlikely to be granted asylum in Germany. At the weekend, officials said that they were working on plans to set up special expulsion centers for Moroccans and Algerians similar to those that are currently being used to fast-track the deportation of failed asylum seekers from the Balkans.

Germany now also hopes to reach an agreement with other E.U. member states  to categorize these North African nations as “safe” countries of origin, meaning that their citizens have almost no right to asylum in the European Union, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. There is also a need to persuade those countries to do more to accept those being deported.

The first asylum package has already tried to make Germany a less attractive destination by cutting cash benefits for asylum seekers. The measures include a new refugee ID card, which make multiple registrations more difficult. Applicants have been known to apply more than once to receive extra benefits.

When it comes to cracking down on economic migrants, other European countries have been less squeamish than the Germans.  Denmark is a prime example.

The center-right government in Copenhagen plans to check newly arrived refugees for valuables. If they enter the country with cash or certain valuables worth more than 10,000 krone, or €1,300, authorities will confiscate these assets to help pay for their stay in Denmark. Plans to confiscate wedding rings and mobile telephones were dropped following international protests. Danish welfare recipients are subject to similar rules.

Denmark also plans to reform its rules for family reunification, requiring refugees to wait three years before bringing families to join them instead of the current year’s wait. The Danish parliament hopes to approve the measures later this year, with the support of the right-wing People’s Party.

Germany cannot show unlimited charity. Thomas de Maizière, German Interior Minister

In Switzerland, refugees have long had to contribute to the cost of asylum procedures. Authorities there can confiscate assets greater than 1,000 Swiss francs, or €915. But so far, most applicants have had little to confiscate. In 2015, only 112 refugees were forced to give up assets, amounting to a total of 210,000 Swiss francs. Also in Switzerland, refugees who are granted asylum and find work must contribute 10 percent of their income to state coffers for up to 10 years.

Dutch asylum policy is among the toughest in Europe. Human rights activists there complain that refugees have few avenues for appeal if their asylum applications are turned down. The acceptance rate is low: two out of three applications are refused, and a rejected applicant has 28 days to leave the country. This period of time can be extended to 12 weeks, but if so, the refugee is illegal and receives only the most basic provision:  a bed, a bath and bread. On average, Dutch asylum proceedings last three months, two fewer than in Germany.

In theory, if refugees in Germany have assets, they are expected to use them before receiving state aid. German welfare payments, including asylum seeker payments, are officially “secondary” measures. But since the authorities can barely manage to collect names and birth dates, they are unlikely to have a clear sense of refugees’ bank accounts and asset values.

Not only refugees but also some E.U. member states are clinging tightly to their assets in dealing with the crisis.

Late last year, the European Union trumpeted a €3 billion “Turkey fund” to be used to pay for new refugee camps and schools in Turkey and Syria. But the promises are turning out to be empty ones, with many countries failing to pay. Italy is the biggest offender, refusing even to justify its failure to pay.

The situation with the E.U. Syrian Fund is no less positive. Only about one tenth of the targeted €500 million has been raised so far.


Holger Alich is Handelsblatt's Switzerland correspondent, covering the financial industry. Helmut Steuer is Handelsblatt's correspondent for northern Europe.  Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and specht@handelsblatt.com