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Germany debates funding for refugees

May 9, 2023

Germany's state governments are demanding more money to support the growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. But will Chancellor Olaf Scholz give in?

Young refugees outside their makeshift accomodation in Brandenburg
The number of refugees coming to Germany is risingImage: Patrick Pleul/ZB/dpa/picture alliance

More than a million people from Ukraine are registered as war refugees in Germany. In addition, 218,000 migrants lodged applications for asylum in Germany in 2022. Add to that 102,000 asylum seekers in the first four months of this year — an increase of 78% compared with this time last year.

How much is the federal government paying?

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner recently calculated how much the federal government is currently contributing toward receiving, accommodating, and integrating refugees and asylum seekers: €29.84 billion ($32.8 billion) last year, and €26.65 billion earmarked for this year. This includes about €11 billion for programs in countries that people are fleeing from to counter the incentive to migrate to Germany.

The federal government pays the lion's share of social benefits for people who have fled the war in Ukraine: €5 billion. Its contribution to social welfare covering people who have fled from other countries is just as high. 

In addition, it funds integration measures such as language courses totaling €2.7 billion. The federal government also has its own programs which support expanding daycare services for children, the digitalization of schools, and building more housing.


What do the federal states want?

As the number of refugees increases, the federal government should increase its contributions — this is the position the 16 federal states have agreed on prior to Wednesday's meeting in the chancellery.

In real terms, the state has scaled back its help in recent years despite refugee numbers rising again — back since 2016 when almost 750,000 asylum seekers mainly from Syria applied for asylum in this country.

Hendrik Wüst, who heads the government in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, pointed out that while the federal government covered about 40% of all costs during the height of the so-called "refugee crisis" of 2015/2016, today that figure has fallen to less than 20%. The states would like the federal government to share the costs with them. "It should be at least 50:50," Wüst told the regional newspaper Rheinische Post.

The premiers of the 16 states want to return to allocating funding for refugees and asylum applicants on a "per capita" basis. From 2016 until 2021, the federal government paid the states €670 per asylum seeker each month — now the the states want to see a monthly flat-rate payment to the tune of €1,000. That way, they argue, the federal and state governments would not have to continually renegotiate the funding.

What does the federal government want?

The German federal government argues that its own debts are continuing to grow, while many local governments have budget surpluses.

Germany's governing center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), and Greens, points to the country's constitution, the Basic Law, which states that states and local authorities bear responsibility when it comes to funding the care of refugees. 

The states and municipalities received continually larger portions of the federal tax taken and should be able to fulfill their responsibilities with that. In the future, the federal government wants to require the states to declare how much of the €3.5 billion in federal tax they have really passed on to the municipalities.

But the federal government in Berlin is keen to focus on other matters, such as the modernization and digitalization of the administration, and speeding up the return of rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin. 

Can migration be controlled?

The federal government wants to make it possible to hold people in custody pending deportation regardless of the status of their asylum applications so that certain lawsuits should no longer have the effect of suspending deportations.

But there are also plans to reduce the number of new refugee arrivals.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has suggested declaring Moldova and Georgia as safe countries of origin, which would allow Germany to push refugees back to those countries. Leading up to the refugee summit, the opposition conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) have called for German development aid to be cut to countries that refuse to accept rejected asylum applicants back. However, the government refused this request.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wants to push changes through at the European Union level which would allow for decisions on asylum applications in certain cases to be made at centers set up at the EU's external borders. From these centers, people could be sent directly back to their home countries if their applications for asylum were rejected.

This would have no impact on the process for refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. They can not be returned to their country of origin, as deportations are not possible to countries classified as unsafe. This means the federal interior minister's plans would not ease the burden on Germany's municipalities and states in the medium term.

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.