One month after a lengthy asylum row between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her hardline interior minister, Horst Seehofer, nearly brought down the German government, one key part of the deal they made became reality on Wednesday. Bavaria opened its first seven transit centers for asylum seekers.
They are known here as “anchor centers,” and started operations across the state, a sprawling region that shares a long border with Austria. Bavaria has been at the forefront of the refugee influx since 2015. The German term “Anker” is an acronym that stands for arrival, decision and deportation. Asylum seekers are to be kept at these closed facilities for up to 18 months while their applications are processed.
This Wednesday also marks the start of monthly quotas with which the German government seeks to restrict family reunification for certain categories of refugees. From now on, a maximum of 1,000 relatives of refugees with limited protection status will be allowed to immigrate each month.
Both measures significantly tighten Germany’s so far generous asylum policy and have been strongly criticized by opposition politicians and civil organizations alike.
For Mr. Seehofer, the opening of the anchor centers is a personal triumph. The interior minister, who stepped down late last year as Bavaria’s state premier, has called for such facilities for months. Such facilities feature prominently in Mr. Seehofer’s controversial “Master Plan for Immigration,” which labels them “transit centers.” Mr. Seehofer’s 63-point immigration blueprint — essentially a crackdown on asylum — pitted him against his boss, Ms. Merkel, for several troubled weeks in June when the dispute threatened to topple the chancellor while much of Europe looked on in dismay.
The interior minister says the anchor centers will accelerate deportations and the review of asylum claims. “I am confident that the anchor facilities will be a success,” he beamed. The seven facilities in Bavaria will house 1,000 to 1,500 migrants each, including families and young children. Refugees inside the centers will not be allowed to leave, work or attend school until their status is determined. Those granted asylum will be allocated to different towns while people who are denied the right to stay will be deported. Further, such asylum processing facilities may open in other regions in Germany in the coming months.
But Mr. Seehofer’s scheme drew skepticism from across the political spectrum, from opposition parties to refugee organizations, as well as religious leaders and the police.
Some critics have argued that processing asylum requests often takes more than 18 months, meaning an asylee could be kept in the anchor facilities for much longer. Others have pointed out that keeping people in closed facilities for months is an obvious obstacle to integration.
“Being permanently confined to mass housing facilities is catastrophic for those affected,” said Pro Asyl, a German human rights NGO. Those who are denied access to school, work, new neighbors and volunteers over a long period of time will struggle to learn German and won’t meet enough people to settle down properly in Germany, the organization said. It said the centers “prevented integration by government decree.”
A senior civil servant responsible for children’s rights also questioned the policy. “Like all youngsters,” refugee children have a right to education, to health care and to be protected from violence, said Commissioner Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig. These rights are not guaranteed in the anchor centers, he protested in a statement that underlined Germany’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The new law that caps the number of relatives of refugees allowed to enter the country also drew criticism, especially from opposition politicians. Green Party boss Annalena Baerbock said the move contravened Germany’s constitution, which has an article guaranteeing a right to family life. The chairman of the Human Rights Committee in the Bundestag, Gyde Jensen, said that family reunification should be linked to clear criteria such as the danger of life and limb, not to arbitrary figures and upper limits. Even the UN refugee agency UNHCR condemned the bureaucratic procedures.
More Catholic than the pope
Mr. Seehofer’s tough stance on immigration was slammed across Germany as electoral posturing, as a state election looms in Bavaria in October. His party, the conservative Christian Social Union, or CSU, faces a mounting challenge from the Alternative for Germany, a party of the populist far right known here as AfD. “It’s a shame that the CSU-led state government is campaigning on the backs of refugees in such a misanthropic way,” said Alexander Thal of Bavaria’s Refugee Council.
But the CSU is determined to cling onto its majority in the state. In recent weeks, its lawmakers have ignored criticism from Bavarian church leaders who noted the nominally Christian party is disregarding the Christian values of charity and compassion.
On Monday, Markus Blume, a senior politician in the CSU, said Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches don’t follow the Scriptures closely enough, while his party is “more assertive” in defending “the Christian character of our country and its Christian values.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.