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The new "Asylum Acceleration Law," freshly approved by the lower house of the German parliament, is meant to speed up asylum procedures. Critics say it will do the opposite, and that it violates the German constitution.
Chancellor Angela Merkel once again found portentous words to begin Thursday's parliamentary debate on the question that has exercised the German government throughout the summer: what to do about the record number of refugees currently traveling to Germany?
This was, she said, a "historic litmus test" for the country. "We are experiencing, more directly than ever before that, in our globalized world, wars, conflicts, and the lack of prospects, which supposedly only existed a long way away, now reach our front doors more and more often," she told the Bundestag chamber.
Though she said that the rest of the European Union needed to do more to help, the chancellor urged the assembled MPs to support her new series of measures to tackle the problem. Collected under the name "Asylum Acceleration Law" and due to come into effect on November 1, the plans have already attracted criticism from refugee aid organizations. The most vociferous of these was Pro Asyl, who scornfully re-dubbed the plan the "Integration Denial Law" in a statement released Thursday. "To the detriment of our society, the course has been set towards defense and exclusion," the group said.
The German Bar Association (DAV), which represents some 66,000 lawyers, has been equally scathing, largely because of the haste with which it was drawn up. "The treatment of refugees, especially from Balkan countries, goes well beyond what can be justified on factual grounds," the DAV said in a statement, before claiming that the law contravenes the constitution in several places - not least its opening article: "Human dignity shall be inviolable."
Is the criticism justified? What does the new law entail for refugees in Germany? DW takes a look at some of the key measures:
Stay in 'initial entry reception centers' is to be extended up to six months, rather than the current three
Germany's "initial entry reception centers" are the sports halls, industrial warehouses, abandoned hardware stores, and any other large unoccupied buildings that local district authorities have requisitioned and turned into emergency shelters in recent months to cope with the new influx. According to Pro Asyl, this is a disastrous idea - not only are many of these centers already overcrowded, but they have been the focus of both the spate of far-right attacks across the country, as well as the reports of violence, rape, and petty crime among refugees. All these problems are likely to be exacerbated by the new provisions.
The DAV is equally withering: "This is recognizably not suited to accelerating the asylum process," it wrote in its appraisal of the new law. On top of that, since asylum seekers are not allowed to work as long as they live in these centers, the new regulation automatically entails an extension on their work ban, and therefore more cost to the state and less chance for asylum seekers to integrate.
Until now, refugees in Germany were entitled to 143 euros ($163) a month in cash. The government has decided that this constitutes a "false attraction" for refugees, and therefore intends to replace it with non-cash benefits "as far as possible." This was a situation that had only recently been reformed. "In Bavaria until recently it meant you got a packet of food twice a week - whatever was in it, whether you liked it or not, whether it was old. It was awful, and it was good that they changed that," said Seidler. "With these non-cash benefits you have no more freedom to choose. And it won't stop people coming - this claim that people are coming because of 143 euros pocket money - it's absurd."
Pro Asyl also believes that non-cash benefits will inevitably lead to more bureaucracy and therefore more cost to the state, and will further serve to hinder the integration of refugees. Refugees will have to go the center administration every time they need money for anything - a new mobile SIM card, a public transport ticket.
On top of that, the DAV points out that the notion of "false attractions" was the target of a Constitutional Court ruling in 2012, which said: "Migration policy deliberations to keep benefits low to avoid attractions ... cannot justify the lowering of the standard of benefits below the physical and socio-cultural minimum."
Deportations no longer notified
According to the new law, authorities will no longer notify asylum seekers that they are about to be deported once their deadlines have been reached. The DAV considers this a violation of the German constitution's guarantee of transparency in public authorities, but this is not the only reason they oppose it. "It means night-raids, people being picked up from work and put on a plane," Gisela Seidler, chairwoman of the DAV's asylum law committee, told DW. "We have a lot of cases of clients who are sick, who have familial reasons [to stay], who are pregnant, who have children. There will be a lot of cruel experiences - I expect a lot of people will resist at the airports, that there will be suicide attempts - all the things that we actually got past to achieve a humane implementation of deportation." This, according to Seidler, is one of the worst provisions in the new law.
More 'safe countries of origin'
Germany has kept a list of so-called "safe countries of origin" since 1993 - the last time Germany faced a major migration influx - which determines that certain asylum applications may be turned down purely based on the country the asylum seeker has come from.
Up until now, that list included all EU member states, Norway, Switzerland, Ghana, Senegal, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia, but the new law extends the list to include three more Balkan countries - Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. According to the DAV, classifying any country as "safe" requires a thorough and careful assessment of the situation in those countries based on constitutional and European laws. "These conditions cannot be met in a fast-tracked legislative process such as this one," the DAV says. "For that reason it is unsurprising that the required explanation and assessment is not present in the official justification of the law."
More integration courses
One positive aspect of the new law is the expansion of integration courses (German language and "living in Germany" courses) to take in not just recognized asylum seekers, but all refugees (as long as they're not from "safe countries of origin"). "That has been a demand for a long time - of course it's good, but it doesn't make up for all the other tighter restrictions in the law," said Seidler. "That's what all the refugees want - they all say they want to learn German so they can work. The main reason why refugees come to Germany is because of the job market, because they see that unemployment is low, so they come because they want a job."