Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet today backed a plan seeking to better integrate migrants, virtually assuring that Germany will move ahead with efforts designed to stop the creation of ethnic ghettos and compel refugees to learn German and European values.
The plan reflects wider questions across Europe on how to assimilate the huge flow of migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and beyond that overwhelmed the continent last year and continues despite attempts to curb the exodus.
Germany has become a key test: the nation handling the largest number of migrants and a centre for debates over how to balance the needs of the new arrivals while safeguarding Western traditions and culture.
The carrot-and-stick approach backed by Merkel's ruling coalition is almost assured passage in Parliament this northern summer.
The law creates new economic opportunities for migrants to find work while robbing benefits from those who fail to comply. Merkel hailed it as "a milestone."
"We are a country that makes a good offer to those who come to us, to those who are fleeing war, persecution, terrorism," she said.
"But we're also saying very clearly - because we have learned from the past when we did not provide these integration opportunities - that we're also expecting people to accept this offer."
Although the migrant waves have slowed dramatically following European steps to block sea and land routes, Germany still faces the prospect of managing and integrating more than 1 million newcomers.
ABOUT THE INTEGRATION PLAN
1 Law will subsidise the creation of 100,000 new jobs
2 it will be easier for private employers across Germany to hire refugees
3 Refugees would stay at least three years in the municipalities they were first assigned unless they have a clear job offer elsewhere
4 Refugees would face benefit cuts if they are found not to be seriously looking for work
5 Refugees would face penalties for failing to attend language and integration courses
The most contentious aspect of the bill is the bid by the Government to prevent the rise of new and larger ghettos in big cities across Germany.
In places such as Berlin and Hamburg, waves of guest workers from Turkey settled down in the 1960s and 1970s, with many of them living and working in largely Muslim neighbourhoods that critics say became isolated from mainstream German life.
Under the new plan, refugees would be compelled to stay at least three years in the municipalities they were first assigned when arriving in Germany unless they have a clear job offer elsewhere. That could leave many migrants stranded in small towns and villages far away from the urban neighbourhoods where refugees have tended to find easier prospects for jobs and community ties.
Critics say the measure fails to recognise that such communities offer a "soft landing" for migrants, providing the chance to socialise with people who speak their own language and share their religious faiths.
But the Government counters that the new law will create employment for migrants in places across Germany by subsidising the creation of 100,000 new jobs. These positions - such as maintaining public parks and aiding the elderly -- will be paid at an exceedingly low rate of less than one euro per hour.
But Labour Minister Andrea Nahles called them "an alternative to doing nothing". Refugees can also face government benefits cuts if they are found not to be seriously looking for work.
At the same time, the law will make it easier for private employers across Germany to hire refugees, meaning the newcomers could enjoy more economic prospects even in small- and medium-sized communities offering a better chance to assimilate into mainstream German life.
"This is the first time in Germany -- and I think we are also the pioneers in Europe - that certain obligations are laid down in law," said Jens Spahn, an MP from Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union. "Yes, we are helping, but we are expecting something in return."
At the same time, refugees would also face the prospect of new penalties for failing to attend language and integration courses.
Spahn argued it was an essential change, since many of the migrants were coming from countries where "there are big cultural differences when it comes to the division of religion and state, the equality of women and attitudes towards gays and Jews, as well as the use of violence when solving conflict".
The move to penalise non-participation appeared particularly aimed at those from more conservative Muslim countries. Germans reacted with outrage following a string of incidents on New Year's Eve, when suspects including migrants allegedly engaged in large-scale sexual harassment and sexual assault of women.
Among other things, it prompted an outcry from critics who claimed Germany was taking in masses of migrants without a serious plan on how to integrate them. Under the new measure, refugees failing to take integration classes would not be deported. But they would risk losing a portion of their government benefits and could complicate their bids for permanent residency.
"We don't want parallel societies, we don't want ghettos," Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told reporters.
Critics, however, called it the wrong approach.
"What conservative politicians say is that the refugees have to learn our Christian values, our European values," said Bernward Ostrop, an expert on asylum at the Berlin office of the Catholic charity Caritas.
But, he added, "it is better to encourage them to learn than to demand that they learn."