Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Merkel Seeks Refugee Curbs as Surge Strains German Welcome

  • Aide warns of exaggerated expectations among refugees
  • Government bill seeks faster expulsion of economic migrants

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government signaled it will step up expulsions of economic migrants after the influx of asylum seekers reached a record in September.

As Russian airstrikes inside Syria escalate the country’s 4 1/2-year civil war that has led millions to flee, lawmakers in Berlin took up legislation Thursday to trim benefits and step up enforcement of asylum rules. The bill also boosts spending to tackle the immediate crisis of Germany’s biggest wave of refugees since World War II.

Merkel faces criticism within her governing coalition for pledging an open door for people fleeing war and saying Germany can handle the inflow. Her green light is “a mistake we’ll be dealing with for a long time,” Horst Seehofer, head of the Merkel-allied CSU party that governs Bavaria, said last month.

“I also want to tell all refugees: Yes, some shelters aren’t comfortable, some are crowded,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said to applause in the lower house of parliament. “Please don’t raise your demands too high.”

800,000 Refugees

Germany expects an estimated 800,000 refugees this year, many of them economic migrants from the Balkans who will eventually be sent home. September’s inflow was the highest monthly total in decades, de Maiziere told lawmakers. As many as 10,000 people per day arrived at the end of the month, he said Tuesday.

Merkel’s insistence that Germany can house, feed and assimilate the refugees -- “I’m convinced we can make it,” she said in parliament on Sept. 24 -- is backed with at least 6.7 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in emergency federal spending that’s part of the bill. Nonetheless, the government is sticking with its plan for a balanced budget in 2016, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Wednesday.

Merkel’s Risks

Merkel has repeatedly said that while Germany will take in war refugees, economic migrants won’t be able to stay. To help filter them out, the refugee bill, which Merkel wants to pass by Oct. 16, aims to speed up processing of asylum applications. Germany may also need to set up screening centers at the country’s land borders, similar to procedures used at airports, de Maiziere said Wednesday.

Merkel’s approval rating declined to 63 percent from 68 percent in June, according to a TNS poll for Der Spiegel published Saturday that ranked her behind Schaeuble and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Seehofer, whose home base of Bavaria is the main entry point for refugees, rose 6 percentage points to 44 percent.

Still, five of the six main national polls put voter support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc, which includes the Bavarian CSU, at between 40 percent and 42 percent. That compares with 41.5 percent she won in the 2013 election that gave her a third term.

While de Maiziere said Merkel’s government is stemming a rising number of anti-foreigner hate crimes “with the full force of the law,” he also warned refugees to abide by the law after clashes between rival groups broke out at several shelters in Germany.

“That includes not getting into fistfights, being patient and showing respect for other people regardless of religion or gender,” he said.

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