- Refugee debate aggravated by sexual-assault probe in Cologne
- Ministry attributes reduction in December mainly to weather
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government said about 1.1 million asylum seekers entered Germany last year, a record for Europe’s largest economy, as the nation’s debate on refugees is inflamed by a mass sexual-assault probe in Cologne.
“If we have the highest number of refugees since World War II, that will have an effect on Germany,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday as he presented the 2015 numbers. “We find that number too high -- and we’re going to try to ensure that that figure in 2016 is not as high.”
Political conflict in Germany over how to integrate a million newcomers fleeing war, persecution and poverty is being compounded as authorities investigate complaints by dozens of women that they were attacked on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. With witnesses and police describing the men as migrants, Merkel weighed in Tuesday and called the assaults “repugnant.”
“This is unacceptable, there’s no way to play it down and there’s no way to excuse it,” Steffen Seibert, the chancellor’s chief spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.
Syrians made up almost 40 percent of last year’s arrivals in Germany, which has a population of 81 million, according to the Interior Ministry. Afghans and Iraqis accounted for 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Even the 477,000 asylum seekers who were formally registered last year “was the highest number ever recorded in Germany,” de Maiziere said. The number is lower than the headline estimate because of delays in processing applications.
Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer renewed his rejection of Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees, hours before he and the chancellor planned to meet at a retreat of Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, the smaller of two parties in Merkel’s bloc.
“You have to face the fact that the confusion surrounding the stream of refugees is being exploited to commit crimes,” Seehofer told reporters at Wildbad Kreuth in the Bavarian Alps. “I’m sticking with my demand for a change of refugee policy in all its facets in 2016.”
De Maiziere called the Cologne incident “horrible, outrageous and not at all acceptable,” though he warned against casting a general suspicion on refugees. The minister said on Tuesday that the suspects were “people apparently with a migrant background.”
December arrivals in Germany declined 38 percent from November to 127,000. De Maiziere attributed the reduction mainly to stormy weather in the Mediterranean, while also crediting “initial efforts” by Turkish authorities to halt the flow of migrants across the Aegean Sea to Greece.
“But we don’t yet recognize a sustainable, consistent and visible reduction due to these activities,” de Maiziere said.