As Europe grapples with migrant influx, benefits limited

Germany is mulling taking away benefits from asylum-seekers if they refuse to try to learn the language and integrate; Denmark has just approved a measure to let police seize valuables from migrants to help cover their housing and food costs; and an Austrian province this week is expected to more than halve payments to many refugees.

As Europe struggles to cope with the influx of more than 1 million migrants in 2015 alone, countries are increasingly coming up with new procedures to cope with them — sometimes even at the risk of clashing with national constitutions and international agreements.

Germany's high court in 2012 ruled that the benefits the country paid to asylum-seekers were far too low, and violated the constitutionally guaranteed "fundamental right to a minimum existence." That forced the government to start calculating payments along the same lines as those to Germans receiving social assistance.

It's the comparison with what Germans receive that Labor Minister Andrea Nahles pointed to on Monday as she explained her plan to cut benefits for migrants who don't want to integrate into German society.

Just as long-term unemployed are obligated to take jobs if they're offered, asylum-seekers should be expected to take German language and integration classes, and also start working when they're able, Nahles said, while also stressing immigrants wouldn't be asked to give up their religion, views or traditions.

"Whoever needs help will get it," she said. "But you can't get support for nothing."

She now plans to propose a change to Germany's asylum law to allow the changes she wants, but whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

Germany is party to international agreements that compel nations, among other things, to provide refugees with an adequate standard of living, said Verena Haan, an Amnesty International economy and human rights expert in Germany. And according to national law, the high court has ruled "migration criteria" cannot play a role in assessing social benefits, she said.

"How much a person needs in order to live, your actual necessities, have nothing to do with whether you're 'willing to integrate,'" Haan said. "Therefore considering coupling benefits to behavior rather than to needs is problematic."

The plans for benefit curbs come amid a steady souring of the mood and tone in Europe toward the ongoing influx of migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday of refugees: "We expect that, when there is peace in Syria again and IS has been beaten in Iraq, you go back home with the knowledge you gained here."

Merkel stressed last fall that there is no limit to the number of people who can be granted asylum, but she faces increasing pressure to curb the number of newcomers.

Another idea being floated at top levels in Germany is to force newcomers to live in a particular place, in order to spread out the burden evenly among communities. Opponents maintain that would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement.

Germany took in the largest number of migrants in 2015 with nearly 1.1 million newcomers, but it is not the only country scrambling to deal with them.

Denmark last week passed a measure to let police seize valuables worth more than $1,500 from asylum-seekers to help cover their housing and food costs while their cases are being processed. That brought regulations in line with welfare rules for Danes, who must sell assets worth more than 10,000 kroner ($1,500) before they can receive social benefits.

Denmark received about 20,000 asylum-seekers last year, one of the highest rates per capita in the EU. It already tightened its immigration laws last year, reducing benefits for asylum-seekers, shortening temporary residence permits and stepping up efforts to deport those whose applications are rejected.

Some German states also take assets from refugees, also in line with laws regulating Germans receiving social assistance, and Switzerland requires asylum-seekers to hand over cash of more than 1,000 francs ($996) for similar reasons.

On Thursday, the provincial parliament of Upper Austria is scheduled to vote on a measure that would reduce living payments to those granted asylum after November last year to 440 euros instead of the current 914 euros. The proposed cut, which is expected to be adopted, would also be effective for those whose request for asylum is denied but who are tolerated in Austria because their homeland is deemed unsafe.

In addition, those whose asylum request was granted after November will enjoy this status only for three years, after which they would be up for review of whether their homeland is safe enough for return and other factors, including integration.

Austria took in some 90,000 migrants overall in 2015.

In the Netherlands, the government is working on a plan to scrap a rule that gives migrants who have been granted refugee status preferential treatment in waiting lists for subsidized housing. Opponents of migration in the Netherlands often complain that refugees are able to effectively jump queues for a new home while Dutch citizens sometimes have to wait years for a house or apartment.

Changes haven't entirely been focused on refugees, with countries also seeking new regulations for other migrants.

Part of Merkel's plan to deal with the influx, for example, is to accelerate sending home those people from the Balkans and other countries that are considered safe even though they may provide poor economic opportunities.

In September, the European Court of Justice ruled that European Union migrants can be denied unemployment benefits even after six months' residence in an EU country, upholding Germany's decision to cut off social assistance from a Bosnian-born Swedish mother of three.

The ruling was widely seen as a vindication of British Prime Minister David Cameron's push to persuade fellow EU members to let his government ban European migrants from claiming some state benefits and access to social housing until they have been resident for four years.

While Britain has only agreed to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees from the current flood, its Conservative government has been aggressively pushing for measures to limit welfare handed out also to EU migrants arriving in the U.K. Officials say that hundreds of thousands of migrants from poorer European countries who have flocked to Britain are straining schools and public services.

As countries, worried about a timely European solution to the refugee emergency, resort to national measures, it's even raised questions about the future of Europe's passport-free travel area known as Schengen — one of the jewels of the EU crown.

"We have no more than two months to get things under control," European Council President Donald Tusk warned EU lawmakers last month.


George Jahn in Vienna, Sylvia Hui in London, Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.