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Migration: Germany seeks to get tough on asylum seekers

March 7, 2024

A debit card instead of cash payouts and forced community service are some of the ways Germany aims to toughen up on migration and ease public concerns amid rising asylum applications.

Asylum seekers sweeping outside a building
In Germany, asylum seekers can be forced to do community work for a few hours each dayImage: Thomas Warnack/dpa/picture alliance

The wheels of bureaucracy do not always turn slowly. It was not long after Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his state-level counterparts agreed to a debit card scheme for asylum seekers last November that the first municipalities began to implement it. 

The eastern German state of Thuringia took the lead in restricting cash benefits for asylum applicants. The prepaid card can only be used to make purchases locally. Cash withdrawals are impossible, as are domestic and international bank transfers. More cities and municipalities have now introduced the payment card, and officials hope to make it a nationwide practice by the end of 2024. 

Now a local municipality wants to implement a work scheme for asylum seekers living in collective housing who have no work permit allowing them to take on a regular job. Generally, a work permit is only granted six months after an asylum application has been successful. 

They are to be obliged to do up to four hours of community service every day, for an hourly allowance of 80 cents. The idea is for them to keep the area clean or risk having up to 180 euros ($196) every month deducted from their card. 

The proposal is in line with existing legislation and employment restrictions on asylum seekers.

The work scheme would provide a "daily structure" for asylum seekers who otherwise have little to do during the day, Christian Herrgott, the local administrator from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) behind the proposal, told the German newspaper, Die Welt. It would also improve public perceptions of asylum seekers, he added. 

German states face challenges brought by migration

Bringing down asylum application numbers 

There appears to be broad support for these kinds of schemes. A survey by the pollster Insa for the conservative tabloid, Bild, shows 82% support for the work arrangement. The debit card also enjoys strong support, with 77% in favor. 

That dovetails with strong support for the far-right and anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party tops the polls in Thuringia, which is due to hold state elections later this year. The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are hoping that taking a tougher position on migration will win back voters who have drifted further to the right. 

Limiting immigration is a pressing issue also in the eastern state of Saxony, which is going to the polls this autumn, too. Its premier, the CDU's Michael Kretschmer, wants to cap asylum applications at no more than 60,000 per year. His party's current proposal is 200,000. 

Germany remains the top destination for asylum seekers entering the European Union. More than 330,000 applications were filed in Germany last year — nearly one-third of all applications in the EU, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum.

Tighter border controls and new EU policies do not appear to be stemming the influx. In Germany, local authorities bear the brunt of caring for newcomers. Officials around the country have said their resources are stretched thin, especially when it comes to housing and childcare. 

Public opinion has soured against this backdrop. Skepticism about immigration and concerns about its negative consequences have increased significantly, according to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation. 

The steps ahead to bring down refugee numbers

Scholz has expressed agreement on the need to lower refugee numbers. However, asylum is a constitutional right. Given the strength of the far right ahead of state elections in the fall and European elections in June, questions about migration and asylum are likely to the remain a hot topic. 

Germany's 16 states have unanimously called on the federal government to come up with new proposals to ease the burden. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for migration and borders, is looking into the feasibility of processing applications outside the EU. 

The ministry is set to present its findings by June when Scholz again meets with his state-level counterparts. 

This article was originally written in German.

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