• Bill labels Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia as safe-origin countries
  • Proposal faces uncertainty in German upper house of parliament

Germany’s lower house of parliament approved legislation designating Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as countries of "safe origin," making it more difficult for individuals from those nations to receive asylum.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats voted the measure through the Bundestag on Friday over opposition from the environmental Green Party and anti-capitalist Left Party. The bill must still be approved by the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament made up of Germany’s 16 states.

Public anxiety over Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II was compounded at the beginning of the year by a New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne in which scores of women were sexually assaulted by a group of men in front of the city’s main train station. Police said many of the men were of North African origin, prompting Merkel’s coalition in January to agree to declare the three Maghreb states safe, stemming the influx from those countries.

“Those who fulfill the requirement for the right to asylum can stay and those who don’t should leave our country again, it’s as simple as that,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told lawmakers. “To be able to help, one has to be able to say no, namely in cases where no humanitarian assistance is needed.”

The majority of refugees who entered Germany last year were Syrians fleeing civil war as well as Iraqis and Afghans. Only a small portion of migrants from the three Maghreb states have received asylum status.

The opposition and pro-immigration groups have decried the move, citing human-rights violations. In March, the Bundesrat said open questions remain because of the treatment of minorities and homosexuals in those countries. Because of state-government coalitions, the Greens could have a blocking majority in the upper house, which may take up the legislation next month.

“You already recognize that there are human rights abuses but want to pass this legislation anyway,” Greens lawmaker Luise Amtsberg said. “We think that’s wrong.”

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