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German election spotlight on refugee crisis as campaign picks up

News Desk
Published: 26 July 2017 Wednesday, 11:57  AM

German election spotlight on refugee crisis as campaign picks up

The countdown to Germany`s September election is gathering pace, with the nation`s refugee crisis suddenly re-emerging as a campaign issue amid a surge in the numbers of asylum seekers turning up in flimsy boats along the southern European coastline.

Only a year ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel was battling to head off the political backlash unleashed by her decision in September 2015 to avert a humanitarian disaster by allowing 890,000 refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa to enter Germany. 

However, support for Merkel has rebounded in the run-up to the September 24 election, with with a voter survey released last week by German state broadcaster ZDF showing her once again to be the nation`s most popular leader.

But now Merkel`s main challenger, Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz, has seized on the refugee issue in a bid to dent the chancellor`s commanding lead in opinion polls and upset her drive for a fourth term as head of Europe`s biggest economy.

"If we do not act now, the situation could repeat itself," Schulz told Sunday edition of the Bild tabloid.

He was referring to the more than 5,000 refugees - mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh - who the United Nations said are arriving in Italy each day after making the often perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.

Up until recently, the refugee crisis had largely disappeared from the German headlines after the numbers of refugees entering the nation fell dramatically as Merkel`s government stepped up the integration of the newcomers and deported failed asylum seekers.

Germany`s Office of Migration and Refugees estimates that the monthly average of those making claims for asylum since the start of the year has been about 15,000, representing a more than 80-per-cent fall compared with the same period in 2016.

Schulz said he now plans to talk on Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni about the wave of refugees entering the southern European state.

This comes as fresh diplomatic tensions between Berlin and Ankara over Turkey`s arrest of a German human rights activist, Peter Steudtner, underline Merkel`s dependence on a fragile European Union deal with Ankara to help to stem the numbers of refugees heading to northern Europe.

Under the deal, the EU provides Ankara with about 6 billion euros (7 billion dollars) to help Turkey shelter the nearly 3 million refugees fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria so as to discourage them from making the arduous journey on to nations such as Germany. 

But there is an additional risk for Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) allies.

Another terrorist attack in Germany - like last year`s series of Islamic State-inspired strikes - or a criminal case linked to the refugee community could turn the media spotlight back on the number of asylum seekers in the country just as the election campaign enters its crucial stage.

At the same time, CSU chief and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer renewed his pressure on Merkel at the weekend to agree to impose an upper limit of 200,000 a year on refugees entering Germany, which the chancellor has regularly and firmly rejected. 

Seehofer told a CSU party rally that Germany cannot cope with more than 200,000 refugees each year if it is to ensure that integration works.

The ceiling on refugees is not part of the joint CDU-CSU election manifesto unveiled last month by Merkel and Seehofer.

However, it forms part of a separate so-called Bavaria plan that the CSU has set out for the September election.

Pollsters say the divisions in the CDU-CSU over Merkel`s handling of the refugee crisis were a key factor behind the slump in support for the conservatives. 

As a result, Seehofer`s refusal to back down on the upper limit appears set to underline the tensions between Merkel and the CSU on the handling of the refugee crisis as they head into the final weeks of the election campaign.