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German Cabinet finalizing details on migrant integration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, front right, and German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, left, arrive for a press conference after a cabinet meeting as part of a two-day retreat of the German government in Meseberg north of Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
May 25, 2016 - 6:46 AM

BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet on Wednesday approved a raft of new measures combining "opportunities and obligations" designed to help Germany deal with the influx of about 1.1 million asylum-seekers registered as entering the country last year, and help those who stay become "good neighbours and citizens."

The package seeks to provide migrants with better access to the German job market and also foresees the creation of some 100,000 government-funded "job opportunities" for migrants. At the same time, migrants will be expected to participate in expanded orientation and language courses, which will also be made available more quickly and to more people than before.

"Learning the German language quickly, rapid integration in training, studies and the labour market, and an understanding of and compliance with the principles of living together in our society and compliance with our laws are essential for successful integration," the Cabinet said in a statement after the meeting. "The newcomers are to become good neighbours and citizens, which will enable us to strengthen social cohesion and prevent parallel structures in our country."

In a provision designed to prevent the development of migrant ghettos in big cities, the measures, which still need Parliamentary approval, would mandate newcomers to stay where they have been officially placed for a minimum of three years unless a job is found that takes them elsewhere.

Merkel told reporters that Germany has "learned from the past," when immigrants were frequently thought of as guest workers or otherwise temporary residents and integration measures were not offered. Now that they are, "we expect people to take up these offers so that integration can work better."

"I think it's a milestone that the federal government is passing an integration law that's based upon the principle of opportunities and obligations, obligations and opportunities," she said.

Initial enthusiasm toward migrants — illustrated by Germans clapping new arrivals at railway stations last summer — has given way to wariness and fear among many in the country. Far-right groups have seized on reports of crimes committed by foreigners and a nationalist party has seen a surge in support at the expense of established parties.

"We want to and have to keep hold our society together," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin after the Cabinet meeting.

The residency requirement had been one of the most controversial issues in the bill. Many migrants who have been sent to rural parts of the country or to eastern Germany — where anti-foreigner violence has been a particular problem — have moved to larger cities against authorities' wishes.

De Maiziere said past experience had shown that migrants need to mix with the rest of society if they want to integrate quickly.

"We don't want parallel societies or ghettos," he said.

Obligatory orientation classes for migrants will be extended from 60 hours to 100 hours, and will include a greater focus on gender equality, a hot topic after attacks on women during New Year's celebrations in Cologne that authorities have said were committed largely by foreigners.

"The role of women, compatibility of work and family life, equality of men and women will get a new emphasis," de Maiziere said.

A group that campaigns for the rights of migrants slammed the bill. Pro Asyl accused the government of including measures designed to prevent people who have passed through countries deemed safe — such as Turkey — from getting asylum in Germany.

It also criticized the decision to backdate the residency requirement to all migrants whose protection status was approved after Jan. 1, saying the measure would lead to "chaos."

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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