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Germany limits cash benefit payments for asylum-seekers. Critics say it's designed to curb migration

When Erdina Laca goes grocery shopping in Eichsfeld these days, she pulls out a special payment card that’s for asylum-seekers only.

She no longer pays in cash for her apples, eggs and fish — like most of the Germans standing in line with her at the register.

Laca, 45, came from Albania with her husband and three children and applied for asylum in Germany last September. The family lives in the county of Eichsfeld in the eastern state of Thuringia and has been one of the first in the country to receive half of their government benefits in the form of cashless payments on a plastic card.

“With half the money that is on the card, I can buy groceries, and with the other half (in cash) I can buy in every shop whatever I need for me and my children," Laca said.

The new rule, which was passed by parliament last month, calls for asylum-seekers to receive their benefits on a card for use at local shops and to pay for services. They will only be able to withdraw limited amounts of cash and won't be able to transfer money outside Germany. The aim is to prevent migrants from sending money to family and friends abroad, or to smugglers.

Migrant advocates groups have criticized the new regulation as discriminatory — especially as it's being implemented in a country that's still much more cash-centric than many other European countries and where some businesses, especially restaurants, won't even accept card payments.

They say people fleeing war and persecution won't be deterred from coming to Germany just because their benefits will no longer be paid out in cash only. Instead, they claim that the payment cards will single out migrants and may possibly add to them being ostracized further.

“It has to be said quite clearly that people are coming because of civil war and persecution — they won't be deterred by a payment card," said Wiebke Judith from Pro Asyl. “The aim here is to create an instrument of discrimination and to bully refugees.”

Germany has been trying to clamp down on migration for months, and this latest measure comes just weeks before the European Union election on June 9.

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has been successfully exploiting Germans’ hardening attitudes toward migrants. AfD, which takes an anti-migration stance, is expected to make significant gains compared to the 10.3% that the party won during the last federal election in 2021.

Attitudes toward migration have hardened in Germany as large numbers of asylum-seekers have arrived, in addition to refugees from Ukraine, and local authorities have struggled to find accommodation.

The number of people applying for asylum in Germany last year rose to more than 350,000, an increase of just over 50% compared with the year before. The largest number of asylum-seekers came from Syria, followed by Turks and Afghans.

In January, lawmakers approved legislation intended to ease deportation of unsuccessful asylum-seekers. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly said that authorities need to speed up deportations.

Germany, like several other European countries, has also started classifying some countries, such as Moldova and Georgia, as "safe countries of origin” — meaning asylum-seekers from there can be quickly rejected and deported faster than in the past.

Eichsfeld, where Luca and her family live while their asylum plea is being processed, was one of the first counties to introduce the plastic payment cards, which look similar to ATM or credit cards. The small town started handing them out to asylum-seekers in December.

The legislation gives local authorities latitude to decide on exemptions and on how much cash asylum-seekers can withdraw. Eichsfeld decided to pay out about 50% of the monthly benefits for asylum-seekers in cash, with the other half going on the payment cards.

While Laca doesn't have any problems with the changes, county officials say that some migrants don't like the new cards.

“We have a lot of nationalities who grew up with cash — they don’t know how to pay by card,” says Thomas Dreiling, who runs a local shelter for asylum-seekers. Still, he supports the new system because he thinks that having less cash available will be an incentive for migrants to look for work and thus get off government benefits.

Jihad Ammuri, a 20-year-old asylum-seeker from Damascus, Syria, said not all stores have been accepting his payment card and he’s been turned away from some places.

Dreiling said that of the about 400 asylum-seekers who were slated to get the payment cards in December, more than 50 said “no” to the card and left Germany — most of them citizens from North Macedonia and Georgia. Another 40 people have found work in the meantime and no longer receive government welfare payments.

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