Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, apologized on Tuesday for accusing Ukrainian refugees in Germany of “welfare tourism.”
In an interview with Bild TV on Monday night, Merz said that Germany “is now experiencing wellness tourism among these refugees” and accused many of them of “taking advantage of the system” by going back and forth between Germany and Ukraine.
In a tweet the next day, Merz apologized for his choice of words.
“I’m sorry I used the word ‘wellness tourism.’ It was an inaccurate description of a problem seen in individual cases,” Merz said.
“Far be it from me to criticize the refugees from Ukraine, who face a difficult fate,” he added.
Ambassador criticizes ‘nonsense’
The outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, was quick to condemn Merz’s characterization of war refugees.
“Where does this nonsense come from about the so-called ‘welfare tourism’ of Ukrainian war refugees?” he wrote on Twitter.
Germany has taken in almost a million refugees from Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. These newcomers can register for a special status that entitles them to certain social benefits, medical care, accommodation, and access to integration courses.
‘Absolutely out of character’
As the leader of Germany’s main conservative party, Merz’s comments drew criticism from across the political spectrum.
“Using Ukrainian women and children who have fled Putin’s bombs and tanks to make a political point is shameful,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) tweeted.
The SPD’s whip in the German parliament, Katja Mast, accused Merz of imitating the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. She also called her subsequent apology “half-hearted.”
The leader of the parliamentary group of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Dürr, added that Merz’s comments were “absolutely out of place”.
“Ukrainian people come to us because they are fleeing Putin’s brutal war,” he told the DPA news agency. “Many of them have lost everything and fear for their loved ones.”
zc/dj (dpa, AFP)
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