Refugee numbers in Germany drop dramatically
The figures German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced in Berlin on Tuesday showed that the waves of refugees arriving in Germany continue to recede.
The Office of Migrants and Refugees (BAMF) registered 186,644 asylum seekers in 2017 compared to approximately 280,000 the year before and far fewer than the peak of 890,000 in 2015.
De Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, said that refugees, particularly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, remained a general European problem. But he added that, for now, the greatest influx was past for Germany.
"The crisis of the extremely high figure of 2015 and 2016 has been overcome," de Maizière said.
"The BAMF is no longer is occupied with trying to master the crisis," the Interior Minister added.
A politically useful figure
This is welcome news to the political parties in power. The asylum seeker numbers were below that of the cap of 200,000 upon which many conservatives have insisted. That should alleviate some of pressure on the issue as conservatives seek to hammer out a deal for a coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD).
Numbers of refugees arriving last year in Germany from the crisis regions of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were all far lower than in 2016. Maizière said that this was in part due to the closing of the Balkan and Mediterranean routes previously used by many migrants to get to Europe.
Maizière added that the BAMF had worked through the backlog of people who applied for asylum in previous years. He said that German authorities were also far better able to determine asylum seekers' true identities thanks to forensic examination of refugees' mobile phones and dialect recognition software.
Read more: Why horrid tales alone won't help German asylum applications
BAMF president Jutta Cordt dismissed reports that the majority of legal challenges to her ministry's decisions on asylum were decided in favor of refugees. She said most asylum cases were either won by the government or rendered moot, for example, because the asylum seeker had voluntarily decided to return home.
Maizière said that the German government would continue to fight human traffickers and that he hoped the number of asylum seekers would continue to decline in 2018. He said one priority for the coming year was to integrate those migrants with a right to remain in Germany into German society.
Opposition disputes government optimism
The anti-migrant, far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was quick to dispute the rosy picture painted by the government, saying the Interior Ministry's numbers didn't reflect the reality on the ground.
"Those may be the official figures but we continue to have open borders," AfD member of the Bundestag Armin-Paul Hampel told Deutsche Welle. "Since 2015 people have been able to come here whether they have passports or not. I wish I knew the true number of people who come to our country. They don't all report to the immigration office."
Hampel added that Germany needed to do far more to deport migrants thought to pose a threat of terrorist attacks.
The center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) was also unimpressed.
"The slightly lower numbers of asylum seekers cannot conceal the fact that the conservatives and the SPD have not drawn all the consequences from the crisis year 2015," FDP Deputy Parliamentary Leader Stephan Thomae said in a statement. "There is still no immigration law effectively organizing and controlling migration to Germany."
Speed at the cost of quality?
Both de Mazière and Cordt portrayed the BAMF as having developed from an institute overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers to one able to deal quickly and efficiently with people claiming to need political protection in Germany.
Refugee advocacy groups rejected that idea, saying that the numbers of legal challenges to BAMF decisions suggested that the institution wasn't running smoothly.
"The quality of the BAMF's work has hardly improved," the advocacy group Pro Asyl said in a statement. "Speeding up asylum proceedings has come at the cost of thoroughness, and the burden has been transferred to the courts."
Pro Asyl also said that the so-called "welcome centers" being discussed by conservatives and the SPD in their coalition talks would have the effect of "deterring" refugees and cutting them off from legal advice.