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Starting an avalanche: government continues to fight over refugee policy

The government is looking for a way to curb the flow of refugees coming to Germany. In their quest, there is much discussion about the appropriate choice of words and the best concepts. Both are in short supply.

Federal Finance Minister Wolgang Schäuble has caused an uproar by referring to the influx of refugees as an "avalanche." While some have called Schäuble's remarks a verbal train wreck, others already see Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) colleague as her potential successor. For many in her party, the chancellor is far too refugee friendly.

Schäuble made the avalanche comparison at an event in Berlin on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, neither Social Democratic Party (SDP) chairman and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, nor Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) were interested in assessing Schäuble's choice of words. Gabriel would only go as far as to say: "I would not have opted for such a comparison."

Strong criticism, however, was voiced by the opposition and human rights groups. "That is grist to the mill for right-wing populists," said Günter Burkhardt for instance, director of the refugee aid organization Pro-Asyl.

Refugees as the 'new community task'

Vice Chancellor Gabriel was decidedly sober in his reaction on Thursday, focussing rather on practical issues related to better dealing with the large number of refugees. To that end, he met with some 100 representatives from cities and municipalities from around the country to discuss questions of the financial support and distribution of refugees. "We are all of the opinion that we need a new joint scheme for integration and demography at the federal, state and local level," said Gabriel. That will entail increased funding, to be shouldered by all, in the areas of housing, daycare, schools and labor force training.

Sigmar Gabriel

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel

Addressing his ruling coalition partners from the CDU/CSU, who are hotly debating an end to allowing Syrians in Germany to be joined by their families, the vice chancellor said that he was not interested in having pseudo debates: "This year 18,000 people have come to join their families in Germany. It is therefore quite ridiculous to give the people the impression that by changing policy we will somehow have less refugees coming here during a similar time period in the future."

Gabriel emphasized that now is the time to set the right priorities. Among these, he sees securing the EU's external borders as the most pressing. The number and pace of refugees arriving in Germany next year must be greatly reduced. He says he can imagine that if an agreement cannot be reached among EU partners, that Germany may make "advance payments" in order to help countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan better house refugees.

In this context, he made an appeal for a "large volumes" of orderly immigration in hopes of combating human trafficking. Representatives from cities and municipalities said that their greatest challenge over the next few weeks will be to find housing for refugees. In North-Rhine Westphalia, 19 municipalities have declared that they are officially overburdened.

"Illegal immigration" and hate speech

The topic of refugees also determined the agenda of other discussions in political circles around Berlin. For instance, the legal consequences of the refugee crisis dominated the fall meeting of justice ministers. The ministers collectively agreed to examine whether each refugee that enters Germany illegally should face criminal charges in the future. "Until now, police and the public prosecutor's office have been obliged to investigate such offenses," explained Baden-Württemberg's Justice Minister Rainer Stickelberger.

As this sets a chain of state activity in motion, and since the vast majority of these proceedings are eventually stopped, alternatives are now being considered.

State justice ministers also agreed on a unified plan for combatting online hate speech/propaganda. Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas welcomed the fact that this spring Facebook finally bowed to public pressure and began to increase its vigilance against hate speech posted within its network. A "task force," which Maas called together, is now charged with assessing proposals for managing complaints. One such proposal envisions certified sites at which users can report xenophobic agitation or right-wing propaganda and demand that networks such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and others remove them from their sites.

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