BERLIN — Germany became an asylum seeker’s utopia, a beacon of hope for the war-weary and desperate. But following a string of terrorist attacks including last month’s strike on a Christmas market here, this nation is weighing tough changes to an asylum system that critics say has exposed millions of Germans to risk.
At a time when the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump has pledged a migrant crackdown in the United States, the moves in Western Europe’s most populous nation signal a harder line also forming on this side of the Atlantic.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, sniped at by Trump for welcoming the mostly Muslim migrants, remains opposed to some of the strictest proposals, including renewed pressure to set a firm cap on new asylum seekers, who are still arriving at a rate of several hundred per day. But in an election year in which Merkel’s refugee stance has become her Achilles’ heel, she and her top allies are accelerating a push for reform.
“You cannot apodictically separate security and asylum policy,” said Stephan Mayer, a senior German lawmaker from the center-right Christian Social Union. Referring to Christmas market attacker Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian asylum seeker, Mayer added: “Amri came to Germany disguised as a refugee. The more people come here, the more likely it is that there is going to be a villain among them.”
Proposals being discussed by Merkel’s cabinet could give German authorities more power to detain or slap ankle bracelets on rejected asylum seekers who are deemed security threats. New “repatriation centers” could also corral rejected asylum seekers in clearinghouses near airports to better ensure their ejection from Germany.
Developing nations that refuse to take their nationals back could also face cuts in foreign aid. Among the most radical proposals: a massive effort to reexamine the backgrounds of the roughly 1.2 million asylum seekers who arrived in Germany since 2015 — a large number of whom, critics say, were never thoroughly vetted.
The proposals are in response to three terrorist attacks last year in Germany involving militants who posed as asylum seekers, as well as the arrest of more than a dozen asylum seekers linked to suspected plots. But refugee advocates are deeply alarmed, arguing that proposals such as nationwide deportation centers could violate the human rights of innocent refugees.
“The question is, who do they want to send there?” said Stephan Dünnwald, spokesman for the Bavarian Refugee Council. “We currently have 160,000 people in Germany whose asylum requests have been rejected. . . . Do they want to build camps for 160,000 people? They should consider whether putting 160,000 people in camps doesn’t mean taking big steps towards a Nazi state again.”
Most of the proposals still require political deals before being set down into draft bills, as well as parliamentary approval. Still others, analysts warn, may be hard to impose even if consensus is reached.
Yet the clamor for change is growing, and Merkel has indicated a willingness to back a number of the measures.
“Those who do not have a right to stay must be returned to their home countries,” she said this week.
Her conservative allies in Bavaria have been pressing the chancellor especially to curb new arrivals. They ramped up calls on Tuesday, unveiling a proposal that includes a higher bar for family reunions that could make it significantly harder for families separated by war to reunite.
Yet the question in Germany now is not only how to manage migrants but how and whether to improve domestic security. Two days after the Dec. 19 Berlin Christmas market attack, the German government backed a bill aimed at expanding video surveillance in public spaces, including shopping centers, stadiums, parking lots and public transportation. The bill also would give federal police expanded power to use body cameras and automatic systems for reading license plates and to record emergency calls.
The plan had been in the pipeline for months, but the government pushed through an announcement of the measure shortly after the attack.
In an article for Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière called for a stronger centralization of German security agencies and an expansion of powers for federal police. It is raising the prospect of a beefed-up state security apparatus in Germany, a notion long considered anathema in a nation with dark memories of the Cold War and the Nazi era.
“We owe it to the victims, those affected and the entire population to rethink our entire migration and security policy,” Bavaria’s governor, Horst Seehofer, recently said.
In 2015, Merkel famously declared that the right to asylum in Germany had “no limit”; critics say that prompted an even greater number of migrants to race to Germany or die trying.
Yet the Germans have since sought to stem the tide. In early 2016, Merkel brokered a deal with Turkey to block migrants attempting to enter Europe. German authorities are also working with neighboring nations to make it harder for irregular migrants to cross into Germany, where generous refugee benefits serve as a magnet for hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees.
Once migrants are here, laws and policies protecting their rights make it relatively hard for the Germans to expel those who are rejected. Several of the new measures being discussed are meant to plug what critics see as dangerous holes in the system.
The Berlin Christmas market attacker, for instance, was a rejected Tunisian asylum seeker with deportation orders who was long suspected by authorities of being a terrorism threat. Efforts to deport him, however, were stalled for months because Tunisia refused to take him back. Meanwhile, officials say, they never had enough evidence to detain him under current German law.
A legal change being discussed by Merkel’s cabinet, officials say, would grant authorities broader powers to detain rejected asylum seekers who are deemed potential terrorism threats for up to 18 months. There are 62 such people currently in Germany.
Arguing that too little is known about the wave of newcomers and that many of them received substandard checks, Gerd Müller, Merkel’s development minister, is also pushing to review all asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since 2015.
Yet German authorities have a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications waiting to be processed. In the short term, critics ague, it may be technically impossible to rapidly redo hundreds of thousands more.
More likely, they say, would be another look by authorities at the thousands of asylum applications that were remotely approved without in-person interviews, a process that could still take months, even years, to carry out.
“I think it’s all a reaction to the Berlin massacre,” said Dietrich Thränhardt, a migration expert at Münster University. “It’s an election year, and everybody wants to prove that he has some idea for solving the situation.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.