German lawmakers approved a raft of measures on Thursday to tackle the refugee crisis, including speeding up asylum and deportation procedures, facilitating the construction of asylum shelters and lowering cash incentives for economic migrants.
Germany expects a record influx of more than 800,000 migrants this year, by far the most in the European Union. With the new legislation, Berlin is aiming to better cope with the unprecedented numbers of new arrivals and to stem the influx.
The package includes widening the list of countries deemed "safe", meaning their citizens generally have no chance of getting asylum, to include Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. Among those already in that category are Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia.
The aim is to speed up asylum and extradition procedures for migrants from southeastern Europe, in order to focus on refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition also passed a proposal to extend to six months from three the period that asylum seekers have to stay in reception centers until their request for shelter is approved or rejected.
During this period, asylum seekers are generally entitled to lower benefits. In addition, the new legislation provides for a switch from cash benefits to payments in kind "as far as possible" for those waiting in reception centers.
It currently takes German authorities around five months to process an asylum application. However this can vary widely, with some migrants having to wait even longer.
Human rights groups Amnesty International and Pro Asyl criticized the approved measures, saying the new legislation put too much emphasis on deterrence and exclusion.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Paul Carrel)