One of Europe’s top human rights figures has urged Germany to avoid “backsliding” and continue to show leadership in the European Union on the continent’s refugee and migration crisis. Nils Muižnieks, human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, said Germany had been “an example to the world” in the way it has welcomed hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants in recent months. But, speaking at the launch of his report on human rights in Germany, he said Berlin should do more to “improve reception conditions and speed up fair asylum procedures”.

Migrants queue in the compound outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs (LAGESO) as they wait to register in Berlin, Germany, October 7, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

Muižnieks’ appeal is timely. German chancellor Angela Merkel says her government remains committed to providing protection to all asylum seekers who reach the country, and Berlin has acted commendably in committing billions of euros and thousands more staff to deal with the huge influx of people – even if, in many places, conditions for the new arrivals remain, at best, makeshift. Thousands of citizens are giving everyday support to the refugees.

Yet the mood is changing. A package of laws adopted by Ms Merkel’s cabinet to equip the government, regional states and local authorities to handle the sharp increase in refugee numbers largely focusses on abolishing apparent “incentives” for refugees and migrants to come to Germany, and on accelerated procedures for removing failed asylum seekers. The package has, rightly, drawn criticism – Germany’s Migration Council, an expert body, labelled the proposals “highly problematic”. Proposals, for instance, for asylum seekers to remain for six months or more in reception centres would “prolong the extremely difficult social and psychological situation” of many of those effected, the Council says.

Moreover, there are worrying signs of a political backlash against refugees. Ms Merkel has faced criticism from within her ruling coalition for her stance on refugees. Right-wing, anti-immigrant groups have started street protests in some cities. And almost every day there are new reports of arson attacks and other assaults on asylum homes and on volunteers who help refugees.

More intense political discussion of the refugee issue was to be expected, as the crisis certainly poses big challenges not only for the refugees but also for communities across Germany. These will persist for years to come. But as Muižnieks says, “backsliding” would be the wrong response.

German MPs should use their review of the new legal package this month to ensure it complies fully with European and other international human rights standards. And German authorities should do more to adequately police asylum centres and combat  extremist violence. Now is the time for the German government to really set an example on how to care for those seeking international protection.