Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has passed a new asylum seekers policy. The government's opposition and various refugee organizations have harshly criticized the reforms.
Of the Bundestag's more than 600 members, 475 MPs voted in favor of Thursday's measures. Sixty-eight opposed and 57 abstained.
The main aims of the amended asylum package are to speed up asylum procedures and ensure that rejected asylum applicants quickly return to their home country. As part of the reforms, refugees allowed to stay in Germany should also be provided with better means to integrate into society.
In the closing debate prior to the vote, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) praised the new policy as a "joint effort by federal and state governments."
De Maiziere refused, however, to set a new forecast for the number of refugees expected to arrive in Germany this year, or implement an upper limit on the number allowed to cross the country's borders.
Changes in a nutshell
De Maiziere described the legislation, which still needs to be approved by the upper house, as the "largest and most comprehensive amendment to the asylum law since the 90s."
Under the changes, Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro will be deemed safe states, meaning their citizens have little chance of getting asylum and can be speedily deported. Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia are already on the safe list. The measure aims to help German authorities focus on refugees from conflict-hit countries such as Syria.
Also part of the package was a proposal to extend the period that asylum seekers are allowed to stay in reception centers - until their asylum status is approved or rejected - from three months to six months. It currently takes German authorities around five months to process a claim for asylum.
Additionally, the legislation included a switch from cash benefits for refugees to payments in kind "as far as possible" for those waiting in reception centers. It also introduced financial penalties for rejected asylum seekers who don't leave the country voluntarily, and a measure to prevent them receiving any more social benefits.
Strong criticism from the Left
Speaking in the Bundestag on Tuesday, Germany's Left Party described the bill as the "worst attack on basic asylum right since the 1990s."
Left Party member Jan Korte criticized the policy's preference of non-cash benefits for refugees upon their initial arrival in Germany and deemed the planned withdrawal of benefits from rejected asylum applicants, if they do not leave the country, as "unconstitutional."
"The coalition is simply ignoring the relevant decision of the Constitutional Court," he added.
Criticism has also been heard from several refugee and social organizations. Pro Asyl said in a statement that the aforementioned benefits cuts were an "open violation of the constitution."
The organization also said that the "barracking of refugees during their initial six-month reception period, the extent of the work ban and the expansion of obligatory residence will exacerbate the accommodation problem and prevent integration."
Call for EU unity
The passing of the bill on Thursday came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with her European Union (EU) counterparts to discuss the refugee crisis.
Speaking ahead of the summit in Brussels, Merkel called on the EU to take more responsibility for the distribution of refugees across the 28 EU member-states.
ksb/msh (AFP, epd, dpa)