Germany's top refugee official steps down

By PATRICK DONAHUE, RAINER BUERGIN, ARNE DELFS | Bloomberg | Published: September 17, 2015

BERLIN — Germany's top migration official, who had come under fire for his handling of the refugee crisis, stepped down from his post, as Chancellor Angela Merkel's government considered measures to tighten asylum laws and speed up the response to the growing influx of migrants.

The German Interior Ministry announced Thursday that the head of the office for migration and refugees, Manfred Schmidt, was stepping down for personal reasons. Schmidt's agency last month in a Twitter post announced it would stop sending Syrians back to the European Union states where they were first registered, a decision that contravened the EU's rules on asylum seekers and brought rebukes from other EU member who argued that encouraged more to come.

An Interior Ministry draft law proposed designating Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro as countries whose citizens generally don't have a right to asylum in Germany, giving asylum seekers benefits in kind instead of cash, being tougher in deporting those whose applications have been rejected and making anyone who applies for asylum in another EU country ineligible to do so in Germany. Those falling into that last category would only be given funding to return to their EU country of origin, according to the draft.

The proposals, which still need approval from Merkel's coalition partners, are part of a broader crisis package to be unveiled Sept. 24 that includes 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in additional federal funding for refugees in 2016. The moves come as some in the chancellor's own coalition express frustration over her response to the crisis as the country struggles to keep up with the influx, which some in the government now say may top 1 million this year. Merkel has repeatedly defended her decision to allow in those from war-torn regions.

"We are an attractive country for refugees and that is a good thing," Merkel said in a speech in Frankfurt on Thursday. "We want to help those in need of protection," she said, while reiterating that authorities will "send back" those who come to Germany for economic reasons.

Merkel also plans to create a task force to coordinate the government's response to the crisis and will name labor agency chief Frank-Juergen Weise to head the group, which will have oversight over Schmidt's old office, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported, without saying where it obtained the information. Germany is considering transferring as many as 3,000 people from the labor agency to work on the backlog of 250,000 asylum applications, FAZ said.

Almost two-thirds of Germans said the government is doing a "bad" or "very bad" job handling the surge in asylum seekers, according to an Emnid poll taken Sept. 9 for N24 television. Forty-seven percent said the EU should re-introduce border checks. Emnid, which surveyed 1,000 people, didn't give a margin of error. The survey was taken prior to the government's announcement of border controls Sunday.

European leaders have been at odds for weeks over how to deal with the region's biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with Merkel saying Europe has a moral responsibility to help and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban fortifying his border to keep refugees out. EU President Donald Tusk announced plans for an emergency leaders summit to discuss the crisis next Wednesday -- one day after EU interior ministers gather to hammer out a deal to relocate 120,000 refugees currently in Greece, Hungary and Italy.

Croatia has become the latest flash point in the crisis, with the government on Thursday wavering in its commitment to accept a growing influx of migrants after 8,900 refugees poured into the country in one day. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said Croatia will help refugees "as long as we can." Officials in Tovarnik, a Croatian border town of 1,500 residents where refugees have been entering the country, said a humanitarian disaster was unfolding.

"This is a siege, a disaster our government didn't foresee," Tovarnik Mayor Ruza Veselcic said. "We are overrun."

Merkel's government has swerved from allowing in tens of thousands of unregistered migrants to re-introducing border checks to stem their numbers in the past three weeks, prompting criticism that Schmidt's office was fumbling its handling of the influx.

State leaders voiced their criticism this week in a meeting with Merkel and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, echoing Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer's position that the government had compounded the crisis by giving potential refugees a green light to come. The Bavarian capital of Munich has been the main entry point into Germany.

"That was a mistake we'll be dealing with for a long time," Seehofer told Der Spiegel magazine last week.

As the tide of migrants swelled over the summer, prompting the government to double its forecast for the number of refugees arriving in Germany this year to 800,000, Schmidt said that his agency had been caught off guard.

"We started too late in terms of seeing the signs," Schmidt told Bayerischer Rundfunk on Aug. 30. "At the beginning of the year, nobody was forecasting such numbers."


Contributors: Ian Wishart and James G. Neuger in Brussels, Richard Weiss in Frankfurt, Gordana Filipovic and Misha Savic in Belgrade and Jasmina Kuzmanovic in Zagreb.

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