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Hamburg knife attack stokes refugee debate as German vote nears

A volatile asylum debate looked set to reopen in Germany on Saturday weeks ahead of parliamentary elections, after a failed asylum seeker killed one person and wounded five with a knife in the northern city of Hamburg.

Hamburg knife attack stokes refugee debate as German vote nears
Photo: Markus Scholz/DPA/AFP

Police are expected to offer further details about the incident at a midday (1000 GMT) press conference.

The 26-year-old born in the United Arab Emirates shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”) as he fled the scene of the crime in a neighbourhood supermarket before being overpowered by passers-by, witnesses recounted.

The attack had been motivated by “hate,” mayor Olaf Scholz said, although he stopped short of declaring it a terrorist incident.

“These criminals want to poison our free society with fear, but they will not succeed,” he added.

If confirmed as an Islamist attack, it would be the first in Germany since Tunisian Anis Amri drove a truck into crowds at a Berlin Christmas market on December 19th, killing 12 and injuring 48.

But police were unable to immediately confirm the suspect's nationality or identify the motive behind the violence. They have also been unable to confirm the accounts that the man shouted “Allahu Akhbar”.

News website Spiegel Online reported that the individual was named Ahmad A., who arrived in Germany seeking asylum and had contact with the Islamist scene, as well as a history of mental health problems and drug use.

The attacker had been scheduled to be deported, but the process had been held up as he lacked identity papers, Scholz said.

“It makes me especially angry that the perpetrator appears to be a person who claimed protection in Germany and then turned his hate against us,” he added.

Images of heavily-armed police searching the Hamburg accommodation centre where the man lived were posted by newspaper Bild on its website late on Friday.

A police murder unit and a squad specialising in politically-motivated crime are investigating the attack.

High alert

Germany has been on high alert over the threat of a jihadist attack since Amri's rampage in Berlin, for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

Jihadists have also carried out a string of random assaults in European countries using knives.

Like the Hamburg attacker, Amri was a failed asylum seeker who could not be deported for lack of documents.

The similarity between the two cases risks reopening barely-healed wounds over Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow more than a million migrants into Germany since 2015, with just two months to go until legislative elections in September.

“Before Mrs Merkel tweets again that this is 'beyond comprehension': this has something to do with Islam. Comprehend that once and for all!” politician Beatrix von Storch of anti-migrant, anti-Islam and anti-European Union party Alternative for Germany (AfD) posted on Twitter.

AfD's support has fallen back in polling since the height of the migrant crisis, but the party remains on course to clear the threshold of five percent of the vote to enter parliament for the first time.

Improvised weapons

The attacker stabbed to death a 50-year-old man, believed to be a German citizen, and “struck out wildly” at others, wounding a woman and four men aged 19 to 64, police said.

Another 35-year-old man was hurt while overpowering the attacker in the street alongside other passers-by shortly after the killing.

“A crowd of about 30 people ran out of the supermarket. They yelled that someone had been stabbed… we saw a man go past with a big knife, like a butcher's knife, in his hand,” witness Ralf Woyna told AFP.

Woyna had been sitting at a cafe opposite the entrance to the shop where the chase began.

“Two customers who also looked Middle Eastern took all the chairs from the cafe and ran after him. I lost sight of them for a minute and heard a shout of 'Allahu Akbar' in the distance, I knew it was an attack straight away,” he added.

An amateur mobile phone video published by news site Spiegel Online showed a handful of pursuers confronting the attacker, a bearded man wearing a T-shirt and jeans, amid dense city traffic.

They can be seen hurling chairs at him to keep him at a safe distance as he yells and brandishes the knife.

According to Spiegel Online, the 35-year-old man injured during the struggle was the one who finally forced the suspect to the ground, using a pole.

The witnesses slightly hurt the attacker while they were overpowering him, before handing him over to police.

Newspaper Bild published images of the man lying handcuffed on the ground and sitting in the back seat of a police car, a bloodied white bag pulled over his head.

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IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

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