German parliament votes by big majority for tougher asylum laws

The German parliament on Thursday passed a controversial package of tough new asylum laws to help stem the numbers of refugees entering the nation.

The laws secured broad parliamentary support with 429 lawmakers backing the package, which includes measures to restrict family reunions for refugees, setting up refugee registration centres and fast-tracking asylum requests.

But underlining the heated political debate that has surrounded the package, a total of 147 parliamentarians voted against the measures, including one from Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and 30 from the junior member of her coalition, the Social Democrats (SPD).

Four SPD members abstained in the vote in the 630-member lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Several members from all parties were not present for the vote.

The opposition hard-left Die Linke and the environmentalist Greens also voted against the package, which forms part of a series of moves by Merkel to tighten Germany's asylum laws ahead of three key state elections set for next month.

In particular, the family reunion measures included in the so-called asylum package II have been roundly criticized by the opposition as well as by members of Merkel's political bloc and the SPD.

Under the package, asylum-seekers who are not considered to be "personally persecuted" in their homelands will now have to wait two years before their families can move to Germany. This in general also applies to minors hoping to be reunited with their parents.

The proposed law also includes the establishment of special reception centres at the border where asylum seekers from countries that are deemed safe are processed quickly and possibly returned to their homelands.

Merkel has promised to "drastically reduce" the numbers of refugees entering Germany after about 1.1 million arrived last year – many fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa - with another big inflow of asylum seekers expected in the coming years.

Germany could receive 3.6 million migrants and refugees by 2020, according to a report in the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung citing figures from the Economics Ministry.

However, the government has refused to publish an official estimate, arguing that it was currently impossible to give a number on the massive influx of asylum seekers to the country.

The arrivals have already lead to strains on Germany's resources for migrants, while prompting a heated debate about whether the nation can integrate so many newcomers.

The refugee crisis has also resulted in a surge in support for a new anti-foreigner party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

In addition, Merkel has faced criticism from within her conservative political bloc for her handling of the refugee crisis.

But on Thursday she received the backing of Germany's top four business associations for her stance and her drive to forge a European solution to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers flooding into the country.

Merkel's plans include strengthening the European Union's external borders and sharing the burden of the new arrivals across EU member states.

In a position, the four groups – the Federation of German Industry (BDI), the German Employers Federation, the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) and the association for the skilled sector (ZDH) - argued that reintroducing national borders would be a blow to business.

But the associations also called on Berlin to boost both organizational and financial support to help with the integration of refugees into the labour market.

After Thursday's Bundestag vote, the package of new asylum laws now goes to the German upper house or Bundesrat for final approval on Friday.

The package also adds Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to the list of "countries of safe origin," meaning asylum seekers from those nations could be returned home under the new expedited procedures for dealing with asylum requests.

Last update: Thu, 25/02/2016 - 21:25
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