The CDU leader initiates a discussion about how to deal with Ukrainian refugees. In detail he is wrong and apologizes. In essence, however, he takes up an issue that has so far avoided politics.

Friedrich Merz, as CDU leader the spearhead of the opposition, first produced a storm of indignation and has since rowed back: in an interview and a subsequent tweet he spoke of “social tourism” by people traveling from Ukraine to Germany, here stay briefly and leave again. It was a back and forth, with “a larger number taking advantage of this system,” Merz said, alluding to the fact that these refugees were also allegedly applying for social benefits in Germany.

After severe criticism, Merz has since regretted and withdrawn this statement. His choice of words is an “inaccurate description of a problem that can be observed in individual cases,” he writes on Twitter.

The statement is not out of the world. The excitement in Berlin is great. The Greens Federal Chairwoman Ricarda Lang, for example, asks: “How does it actually fit in with the much-vaunted solidarity of the Union with Ukraine that Friedrich Merz speaks of “social tourism” in the context of people fleeing this terrible war of aggression?” Minister of the Interior Nancy Feaser (SPD) commented: “Motivation on the backs of Ukrainian women and children fleeing Putin’s bombs and tanks is shabby.”

But how does such a statement come about, what supposed indications are there? One thing is clear: Ukraine refugees are entitled to care under the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act – since June they have received basic security of around 450 euros a month, i.e. the same benefits as Hartz IV recipients. This system is being exploited, is an unproven accusation that has been circulating on social media since September 8th.

A voice message circulated, first on Whatsapp and later on Facebook, claiming that Ukrainians were committing social fraud in Germany. Supposedly they would come here by bus, would receive Hartz IV – sometimes without having a registered address here – and immediately drive back to the Ukraine. “The authorities” are instructed to look the other way and would tolerate the fraud. The voice message said the information came from a neighbor named “Frank” or his secretary named “Irina” who has family in Ukraine.

The statement is not true. Because Hartz IV or comparable social benefits can only be received by people in Germany who have an address here, according to the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. You should be able to reach them by post, which tends not to apply to bus travelers who only make a flying visit to Germany. The ministry denied that employees in authorities would be asked to look the other way if people from Ukraine could not provide a registration address. The mentioned “shuttle trips” are not known.

Merz is wrong with his original statement, which he has now seen. However, the opposition leader has started a debate that has so far been avoided – which partly explains the intensity of the backlash. According to an evaluation by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), almost one million refugees from Ukraine were registered in Germany by the end of August, who will live here for at least a while and need to be integrated.

There are no exact figures because, according to the Federal Office, it is not clear how many refugees traveled on to another European country after being registered in Germany or returned to Ukraine despite the war. According to the BAMF, this could be a “significant number”. In addition, it cannot be ruled out that refugees were recorded twice in the central register of foreigners. There are actually gaps in the coverage here. Merz also emphasized this in his apology, stating: “My remarks only applied to the lack of registration of the refugees.”

While estimates at the beginning of the war assumed four to seven million refugees in Europe, it quickly became apparent that these numbers would be exceeded. According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August 17, 2022, more than 10.7 million people had fled Ukraine as a result of Russian military attacks in the country. So far, most of the refugees have found refuge in Poland, more than 5.4 million people are said to be there already. More than a million people have already fled to Romania.

There are indications that integration is not that easy in this country. The Federal Employment Agency registered significantly more unemployed in Germany for the first time in June and attributed this primarily to the Ukraine refugees. She found that 63 percent of the refugees have no professional qualifications – or had not yet provided any information. Only 13 percent of the refugees understand and speak German.

The article “”Social tourism” – how a rumor became the Merz statement” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.