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Germany’s new government already bogged down in spat over refugee reunions

A scuffle over immigration has marred the first weeks in office of Chancellor Angela Merkel's fourth coalition, promising anything but smooth sailing in the years ahead for the loveless left-right alliance.

Germany’s new government already bogged down in spat over refugee reunions
Photo: DPA

Conservatives among Merkel's Christian Democrats are keen to restrict as heavily as possible so-called “family reunifications” that would allow some of the million-plus migrants and refugees who have arrived since 2015 to bring in relatives.

That has stirred the ire of Social Democrats (SPD), the reluctant junior partners who helped Merkel into office to end the longest period of post-election limbo in post-World War II German history.

In their painstakingly-negotiated coalition deal, the parties agreed that up to 1,000 people per month could enter Germany under family reunification, with only immediate relatives eligible.

New Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is eager to tighten the screws further, with a draft law that would prevent people dependent on social benefits from bringing in family members and further restrict which relations are eligible, including ruling out siblings.

Many people who arrived in Germany as refugees are yet to join the labour market, undergoing job training or language classes, and would therefore not qualify.

READ MORE: Life in suspense – the refugees who can't reunite with their families

Seehofer is a former leader of the ultra-conservative CSU, the smaller Bavarian sister party of Merkel's more centrist CDU.

He is keen to burnish his outfit's anti-immigration credentials ahead of a state election later this year, when they will face a stiff challenge from anti-Islam, anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

“We don't want an influx into the social system. That's also how we've discussed this within the coalition,” he told Der Spiegel magazine's Saturday edition.

Two years ago, Seehofer blasted Merkel's 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to refugees arriving in Europe via the so-called “Balkan route” from the Middle East, saying it had produced a “rule of injustice” in Europe's most populous nation.

Arriving in his Berlin ministry after being ejected from the state premiership in prosperous Bavaria, he lost no time before stirring up controversy with a declaration that “Islam does not belong to Germany”, which is home to around four million Muslims.

'Coalition would be over'

Social democrats, already smarting from the concessions made on immigration in the coalition agreement, have bristled at Seehofer's sallies in the media and at the draft law.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared that “we will not agree to any draft which we consider to be mainly aimed at reducing numbers” allowed to enter Germany.

But Seehofer's CSU party colleagues have backed him to the hilt.

“If the Social Democrats don't cooperate, the 'grand coalition' would be over” less than a month after Merkel was sworn in, deputy leader of the conservative parliamentary group Georg Nuesslein told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

The family reunification row is just one front in a broader battle over immigration, integration and Islam in German society that has pitted the SPD against the CDU/CSU.

Seehofer is also keen to speed up expulsions of people whose asylum applications are refused, many of whom spend months or years contesting the decisions in the courts or acquire a “tolerated” residence status.

After weeks of mud-slinging, some among the conservatives are uncomfortable with the relentless focus on such themes.

“The question is: do we really win elections by naming the topics that stir people up without changing anything?” asked Armin Laschet, CDU state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Merkel will be counting on the support of moderates like Laschet to contain bubbling discontent on the right of her party.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, a rising star of the CDU's right wing seen as a potential future candidate for the chancellorship, has spent his first weeks in office giving interviews urging more “law and order” in troubled city districts.

He has also chided feminist pro-abortion campaigners, saying they cared more about animal rights than unborn children, and declared that long-term unemployed people were not poor.

A government spokesman said Spahn's statements were his “personal” views, not government policy.

IMMIGRATION

How ‘tolerated’ migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

The Bundestag has passed a law that will see people with a 'tolerated stay' gain a new path to permanent residency in Germany. Here's some background on the controversial law - and what it means for migrants.

How 'tolerated' migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

What’s going on?

After a fierce exchange of blows between politicians from the governing traffic-light coalition and the CDU/CSU parties, the Bundestag passed their so-called “right of opportunity to stay” (Chancel-Aufenthaltsrecht) law on Friday.

In the parliamentary vote, 371 MPs from the traffic-light coalition parties – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FPD) – voted in favour of the bill. A total of 226 parliamentarians voted against, including 157 CDU/CSU MPs, 66 MPs from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and three independents. 

Politicians from the left-wing Linke party, as well as a number of CDU/CSU MPs and three FDP MPs, were among the 57 who abstained. 

The law aims to provide a new path to residency for people who had lived in Germany on a ‘tolerated stay’ permit for at least five years by October 31st, 2022. This group will now be given 18 months to fulfil the criteria for permanent residency, which includes proving at least B1 German language skills and showing that they can financially support themselves. 

However, people who have committed crimes or given false information about their identity won’t have the opportunity to apply for a residence permit.  

READ ALSO: How Germany is planning new path to residency for migrants

What exactly is a ‘tolerated stay’?

A tolerated stay permit, or Duldung, is granted to people who are theoretically barred from staying in Germany but are, in practice, unable to leave. That could be due to their health, caring duties, the situation in their home country or a lack of identification papers. 

It’s estimated that around 136,600 people have been living in the country on this status for at least five years, including people who have sought asylum but whose applications have been turned down. 

Germany has historically dealt with these tricky situations by suspending deportation and instead offering a ‘Duldung’, which allows the person in question to stay for the time being. 

More recently, special statuses for migrants who end up in vocational training or work have been added, enabling some migrants to enter training or employment while living on a tolerated stay permit. 

However, the situation for many has remained precarious. Since tolerated status is meant to be temporary, authorities often end up issuing multiple permits over time, causing stress and uncertainty for migrants and additional paperwork for the state. 

How will life change for this group of people? 

For those who speak a bit of German and have a secure livelihood, things could become a lot easier in future. 

Those who have been here at least five years will be given an 18-month permit which will give them time to switch from a tenuous tolerated status to official permanent residency. In addition, people aged 27 or under and particularly well-integrated adults will be given this opportunity after just three years of residence.

This in turn would allow them to take up work or training, become self-employed, start a business and also claim social benefits.

Most importantly, they will have the security of knowing that they are allowed to remain in the country as long as they want to and will be able to show an official residence permit to employers, landlords and public authorities.

Woman protests against deportation Germany

A woman holds up a ‘Stop Deportation’ sign at a protest outside Berlin-Brandenburg airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

What’s more, they should also have an easier time when trying to reunite with close family members. 

However, some people could still slip through the net. According to official statistics, 242,000 people currently live in Germany on a tolerated status – meaning than more than 100,000 won’t be covered by the new law. And this will also be the case for people who end up with a Duldung in the future. 

Even among those who have been here for five years or longer, one key condition for permanent residency – proving their identity – could remain a major hurdle. However, the law does offer people a chance to get around this if they have taken “necessary and reasonable measures” to clarify their identity.

READ ALSO: How to get fast-track permanent residency rights in Germany

What has the response been to the new law?

Unsurprisingly, the governing SDP – who drafted the law – have argued that their approach will finally give people a humane route to staying in Germany on a permanent basis.

“We are ending the current practice of chain toleration,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), referring to the practice of giving multiple tolerated status notices over time. “In doing so, we are also putting an end to the uncertainty that often lasts for years for people who have long since become part of our society.”

Adis Ahmetovic, who grew up as a child as a ‘tolerated’ migrant, spoke in the Bundestag of his own difficulties and said he had even faced deportation orders. “It clearly didn’t work, because now I’m an elected MP,” he said, adding that the right of opportunity law was a move towards “fairness, participation, recognition and respect”.

However, not everyone has been positive about the change, with the CDU and CSU parties in particular speaking out against it. Deputy parliamentary party leader Andrea Lindholz (CSU) told the government it would be better to focus “on those who are really entitled to protection”.

CDU Andrea Lindholz

CDU deputy parliamentary leader Andrea Lindholz speaks out against the “right of opportunity” law in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

For well-integrated long-term tolerated migrants, there are already enough exceptions and pragmatic solutions, she added. 

Axel Ströhlein, president of the Bavarian State Office for Asylum and Repatriation, also criticised the fact that the path to residency would only apply to people who had already been deemed ineligible for asylum or protection from deportation. He said the new regulation would undermine the meaning and purpose of the right to asylum and could send the signal that a lack of cooperation is worthwhile and leads to a residence title.

Others, however, welcomed the change but said it didn’t go far enough.

Kristian Garthus-Niegel of the Saxon Refugee Council had spoken out in support of the Linke’s proposed amendment to effectively end the ‘tolerated’ status by removing the cut-off date for long-term residence specified in the law. This amendment was rejected in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: ‘Dangerous and wrong’: Why German MPs are clashing over citizenship plans

Are there any other important changes to know about? 

Yes. Skilled workers who come to Germany will also have an easier time bringing their family over in future as the government has permanently waived language requirements for spouses of highly qualified workers. 

In addition, they want to make language and integration courses far more widely available and speed up the process of applying for asylum in future. 

People who have committed crimes or who are considered dangerous, on the other hand, will be removed from the country more easily and swiftly. 

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