The "Bild" newspaper has claimed that the German government is secretly expecting some 1.5 million asylum seekers this year. The government denied it, even as political leaders hardened their refugee rhetoric.
The tabloid "Bild" newspaper threw a grenade into Germany's migration debate on Monday morning by releasing a new figure on the number of refugees the government is expecting in the current year.
According to a "secret" government document - the paper did not elaborate on the exact authority or department that had leaked it - some 1.5 million people are now going to seek asylum in Germany this year. Not only that, as many as 920,000 of these are expected to arrive before the year's end.
"Migratory pressures will increase further. We now expect seven to ten thousand illegal border crossings every day in the fourth quarter," the report said, before warning of a "breakdown in provisions."
At Monday's regular government press conference, government spokesman Georg Streiter denied all knowledge of the document the tabloid had got hold of. Nor, he said, did he know of any member of the government who knew to what document the newspaper might have been referring. "No one knows this paper," Streiter told reporters. "For that reason I wouldn't put too much credence in it."
The official prognosis has spiraled since the start of the year - the last official estimate, as of August, had been 800,000 for the year, though Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has been widely quoted as saying it could be "up to a million." On Monday, however, the government said there were no plans to adjust that figure. In May, the official estimate had been 450,000 - in March, 300,000. Perhaps for that reason, Interior Ministry spokesman Harald Neymanns on Monday declined to offer any figures at all.
"The number is of course very high," he said. "But we are not offering a new prognosis for the year based on daily arrivals or weekly arrivals." On top of that, he said that the government was estimating that the number of new arrivals would drop in the winter months, as has happened in recent years. Each new figure has been reported as a shock by the German media - after all, only 200,000 asylum applications had been submitted in the whole of 2014 - but many local authorities, struggling with massive personnel shortages, have been complaining for a long time that they need new resources.
While previously the rising numbers have been used to argue for an increase in investment to deal with the crisis, now they are being used as an argument for keeping more people out. In that light, the newly-leaked statistic seems like the logical culmination of the political rhetoric of the last week. As Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity sank in the wake of her "friendly face" remarks and her selfies with refugees, her coalition allies have been lining up to talk about the "limits" of Germany's capacity.
Over the weekend there were calls, especially from the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU), for fences to be erected along the German border. "We can't take anymore," said Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister-party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. "We demand a massive limitation of immigration," chimed in his party colleague and Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder. "And we need to talk about the basic right to asylum," he added for good measure.
At the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of German unity on Saturday, President Joachim Gauck warned that Germany's capacity to absorb new migrants should not be overestimated.
Those comments were echoed by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere from Merkel's CDU, who on Monday suggested Germany may need to place a cap on the number of asylum seekers.
The influx of refugees is testing Germany's abilities, de Maiziere told citizens during a debate. "That's why we have to limit the numbers and find the right balance," he said.
Even the Social Democratic Party, the center-left half of Merkel's government coalition, have made anti-immigration comments scolding the chancellor for her soft stance: "The chancellor must say clearly that with a million refugees this year our capacities are nearly exhausted," said SPD parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann.
The politicians closest to Merkel, meanwhile, such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have tried to provide the chancellor political cover by striking a middle ground. "We need to limit the influx to Europe," Schäuble told broadcaster ZDF, before adding, "Borders around Germany don't help, nor do fences."
Pouring oil on the fire
This hardening of rhetoric has met criticism, too. "It is not acceptable that the CSU and the SPD are talking about 'limits' and 'over-capacity' in the face of rising numbers of refugees," the German Turkish Community (TGD) organization said in a statement released Monday.
Pro-immigration organizations like the TGD and Pro Asyl argue that populist anti-immigrant comments from political leaders encourage the anti-immigrant violence in Germany. "Especially in a time when there are almost daily attacks on refugee homes, one must - particularly in a role-model position - be more careful with making 'warning' expressions in refugee policy," the TGD said. "The task of politicians should not be to 'pour oil in the fire,' but to do more for a varied and open Germany."
Indeed, the tougher political line has coincided in an upsurge of support for the anti-Islamization movement PEGIDA, which on Sunday gathered an estimated 2,500 people in Sebitz, on the Czech border, to form what they called a "human border." Another anti-immigrant march attracted 1,000 people in the eastern city of Chemnitz on Saturday evening. Now, after a lengthy lull, PEGIDA's regular "Monday demos" are getting more and more media attention.