German opposition leader slammed over Ukraine ‘welfare tourism’ jibe

The leader of Germany's opposition conservatives apologised on Tuesday after being widely criticised for accusing Ukrainian refugees of "welfare tourism" and taking advantage of the country's hospitality.

Friedrich Merz. CDU chairman
Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, delivers a speech during the CDU party congress in Hanover, northern Germany on September 9, 2022. Photo: Ronny Hartmann / AFP

Friedrich Merz, who took over as the head of Angela Merkel’s party earlier this year, had accused the German government of triggering “social tensions” in Germany with its refugee policies.

In an interview with Bild TV on Monday evening, Merz said special treatment for refugees from Ukraine was leading to “considerable distortions”.

“We are now experiencing welfare tourism among these refugees — to Germany, back to Ukraine, to Germany, back to Ukraine,” he said, suggesting that “a large number are now taking advantage of the system”.

Merz published an apology on Twitter on Tuesday and said he regretted his use of the phrase “welfare tourism”.

“Far be it from me to criticise refugees from Ukraine, who are facing a hard fate. If my choice of words was perceived as hurtful, then I sincerely apologise,” he said.

Merz’s comments had provoked a fierce backlash, with Interior Minister Nancy Faeser among those to criticise the 66-year-old.

“Using Ukrainian women and children who have fled Putin’s bombs and tanks to make a political point is shameful,” she wrote on Twitter.

The outgoing Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, also tweeted in response to Merz’s remarks.

READ ALSO: Germany ready to take in Russian deserters, ministers say

“Where does this nonsense about alleged ‘welfare tourism’ of Ukrainian war refugees come from?” he wrote.

Germany has taken in almost one million refugees from Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbour in February.

People from Ukraine can register to get a special status that entitles them to social benefits, medical care and accommodation, as well as access to integration courses.

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Germany recognises Stalin famine in Ukraine as ‘genocide’

German lawmakers on Wednesday approved a resolution declaring as "genocide" the 1930s starvation of millions in Ukraine under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, adopting language used by Kyiv.

Germany recognises Stalin famine in Ukraine as 'genocide'

The joint text passed by members of parliament from Germany’s centre-left-led coalition and the opposition conservatives is intended as a “warning” to Russia as Ukraine faces a potential hunger crisis this winter due to Moscow’s invasion.

Only the extreme right and left-wing parties abstained from voting on the resolution in the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag.

“I thank the Bundestag for this historic decision,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted on Wednesday. “The truth always wins.”

The 1932-33 “Holodomor” — Ukrainian for “death by starvation” — is regarded by Kyiv as a deliberate act of genocide by Stalin’s regime with the intention of wiping out the peasantry.

Stalin’s campaign of forced “collectivisation” seized grain and other foodstuffs and left millions to starve.

The Holodomor has long been a major sticking point in ties between Russia and Ukraine.

Moscow rejects Kyiv’s account, placing the events in the broader context of famines that devastated regions of Central Asia and Russia.

The current conflict has fuelled fears that history may repeat itself. Russia’s targeting of grain storage facilities and its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea exports have sparked accusations that Moscow is again using food as a weapon of war.

Robin Wagener of Germany’s Green party, one of the resolution’s initiators, said Russian President Vladimir Putin operated “in the cruel and criminal tradition of Stalin”.

“Once more, the basis for life in Ukraine is meant to be taken away through violence and terror, and the entire country brought to heel,” he told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Wagener said calling Holodomor a genocide was intended as a “message of warning” to Moscow.