Opposition Christian Union parties floor leader Friedrich Merz speaks at...

Opposition Christian Union parties floor leader Friedrich Merz speaks at the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 6, 2023. The conservative opposition leader has drawn strong government criticism for suggesting that migrants are getting expensive dental treatment at the expense of locals. Credit: AP/Markus Schreiber

BERLIN — Germany's conservative opposition leader has drawn strong government criticism for suggesting that migrants are getting expensive dental treatment at the expense of established residents.

Friedrich Merz, who leads the center-right Christian Democratic Union, assailed the government's approach to immigration in an appearance Wednesday on Welt television. He said people “go crazy” when they see large numbers of unsuccessful asylum applicants staying and getting “full benefits.”

“They sit at the doctor's and get their teeth redone, and the German citizens next door can't get appointments,” he alleged.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser on Thursday accused Merz of populism and said it was “completely inappropriate, particularly in these times. We face great challenges, and one shouldn't contribute to dividing society.”

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told the daily German newspaper Bild that Merz was stirring up hatred against migrants “by apparently deliberately creating the false impression that they steal expensive care from Germans.”

The head of the German dentists' association, Christoph Benz, was quoted in Friday's edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper as saying that “dentists are not being overrun” and that he hadn't heard of any practice having an appointment backlog because of having to treat large numbers of migrants.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government faces intense pressure on migration, particularly ahead of two state elections on Oct. 8. In one of them, Faeser is running to be governor of her home state of Hesse.

A spokesman for Scholz, Wolfgang Buechner, said Friday that “the chancellor doesn’t consider it necessary to comment himself” but added that reporting had made clear “that what Mr. Merz asserted here largely does not correspond to the facts.”

Asylum-seekers have only limited entitlement to health care during their first 18 months in Germany, though they can see a doctor in cases of acute illness or pain. They would only be able to get dentures in that period if it was urgent.

After 18 months, asylum applicants entitled to regular German health insurance, which in most cases covers only part of the cost of dental treatment such as crowns and bridges.

Allies of Merz defended the opposition leader.

Cities and communities across Germany have sounded an alarm about a rising number of arriving migrants, saying they are running out of room to accommodate them and to provide kindergarten and school places.

More than 220,000 people applied for asylum in Germany from January to August this year. In all of 2022, about 240,000 people applied for asylum. In 2015-16, more than 1 million people applied for asylum in Germany.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine more than 19 months go, Germany has taken in more than 1 million Ukrainians fleeing the brutal war in their country.

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