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Germany tries to deter Balkan asylum seekers

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Germany tries to deter Balkan asylum seekers
Albanians at an asylum registration centre in Ingelheim. Photo: DPA.
08:08 CEST+02:00
Germany, overwhelmed by people fleeing war and poverty, is trying to stem the tide of asylum seekers from the Balkans, a region now considered safe at least from armed conflict.

Ideas range from cutting refugees' allowances, to channelling them into separate holding camps, to campaigns in their home countries to discourage them from travelling to Europe's biggest economy.

About half of Germany's 300,000 asylum applications since January have come from the southeast European region that includes Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

In the first five months of 2015, more than 32,000 Kosovars arrived, for example -- more than came from war-torn Syria.

"The high number of migrants from these countries diverts resources that we need to take care of people from the crisis regions," said Manfred Schmidt, head of the Office for Migration and Refugees.

Germany, now Europe's number one destination for asylum seekers, has struggled to process, house and feed a record number, which is expected to top 500,000 this year.

Often of Roma origin, many Balkan nationals come to Germany in hopes of finding work and a better life -- a motivation that, Berlin is at pains to point out, does not qualify them for political asylum.

Fewer than 0.2 percent of their applications are successful, but they often wait for months in refugee centres, flats, residential containers and even tent cities while their applications are processed.

'No economic asylum'

New ideas abound about how to discourage prospective travellers and reduce the backlog of cases in the system, and ideally to cut waiting times to six weeks.

Bavaria state has proposed separating migrants from the Balkans on arrival and placing them in temporary shelters near the border for a speedy return.

The aim is "rapid asylum procedures for people who have no prospect of being able to stay, to relieve the system," said the premier of the conservative southern state, Horst Seehofer.

The Bavarian plan has met with indignation on the political left and among migrant rights groups.

Critics say it stigmatises entire populations and defies each individual's right to apply for asylum, irrespective of their chances.

Many people from the Balkans, especially from ethnic minorities, may suffer harsh discrimination and systemic racism, they argue.

Others charge that separate treatment opens the door further to xenophobia and the targeting of "economic refugees" by far-right groups in a year that has seen a series of attacks and hate speech against the newcomers.

Yet the idea of dealing separately with the Balkans has caught on. The national migration commissioner, Social Democrat Aydan Ozoguz, is open to it, and some regional governments voiced support.

Germany has also intervened "at the source". The embassy in Albania has published advertisements in newspapers stating in bold letters: "No economic asylum in Germany."

Raising the bar

Another step would be to widen the list of nations deemed "safe countries" -- which currently includes Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia -- to also cover Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

For the citizens of concerned countries this vastly increases the hurdles for refugee status and has already had a "dampening effect", according to the migration office.

Such a change would however require the support of the Greens opposition party, because of their weight in the upper house. But for now, they are opposed.

Among conservatives, another idea has been circulating: to cut or scrap an allowance paid to each migrant of 143 euros ($155) a month, which one lawmaker argued is "the equivalent of a month's salary in Serbia".

The proposal was quickly rejected by the Social Democrats (SPD), who govern in coalition with the conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. The party nevertheless backs new restrictions.

"If I was a father from Kosovo, I would also try to get to Germany," acknowledged a regional SPD minister, Ralf Jaeger.

"But we must still say very quickly to these people that they have no chance to stay with us."

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