Angela Merkel tightens Germany’s rules for migrants

Automatic refugee status will be replaced by individual hearings to establish identity

 German chancellor Angela Merkel made the announcement during a televised New Year’s Eve address. Photograph: Ukas Michael/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel made the announcement during a televised New Year’s Eve address. Photograph: Ukas Michael/Getty Images

 

Guy Chazan Germany is to change its policy of granting automatic refugee status to Syrians entering the country, as it struggles to deal with an influx of one million migrants this year.

The announcement came as Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her fellow Germans to reject xenophobia, calling the refugees a “chance for tomorrow” that would bring tangible economic and social benefits.

In a speech to be televised on New Year’s Eve, Ms Merkel said: “We must not follow those who, with coldness or even hate in their hearts, claim German identity for themselves alone, and want to exclude others. We must not let ourselves be split.”

But she also said Germany would work nationally and internationally to “perceptibly reduce” the number of refugees coming into the country, in part by strengthening Europe’s external borders.

Faced with an influx of migrants, Germany had previously simplified the rules for people from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq, allowing them to obtain refugee status under the Geneva Convention on an almost automatic basis.

But criticism of this policy mounted following November’s terror attacks in Paris, amid claims that Islamic State, also known as Isis, could exploit the system and smuggle its fighters into Europe.

The simplified rules will now be abolished. Refugees will from January 1st face individual hearings to establish their identity, where they will be asked about their country of origin, education and the route they took to Germany.

Ms Merkel has faced increasing criticism for her decision to open Germany’s doors to migrants, particularly those fleeing war in Syria. The arrival in 2015 of one million refugees has put huge strain on resources and triggered a political backlash that has created fissures in Ms Merkel’s conservative CDU party and given a boost to right-wing groups opposed to immigration.

The chancellor’s poll ratings and those for the CDU have dipped, while the popularity of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland has grown. The populist Pegida movement has also draws thousands to its anti-foreigner rallies in the former East Germany.

Ms Merkel has also come under fire from Horst Seehofer, a key ally and leader of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavaria-based sister party, who has called for immigration controls to be restored.

In her New Year address, Ms Merkel acknowledged that integrating so many newcomers would cost “time, energy and money”. She stressed they would have to learn German values, traditions, language and laws.

But she also said countries always benefited from successful immigration – both economically and socially. And she said Germany’s economy was strong enough to shoulder the burden, with low unemployment, no new debts and rising real wages.

The chancellor had fulsome praise for the thousands of her countrymen who volunteered to help refugees, saying 2015 would always be remembered for the warm-hearted welcome and commitment they had shown to the migrants.

“If we do it right, today’s great task of moving in and integrating so many people is a chance for tomorrow,” she said. “We can do it because Germany is a strong country.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015