BERLIN (AP) — A German state has launched a program to teach refugees the basics of law in their new host country, with about 800 judges, prosecutors and judicial officials as their teachers.
The classes in the southern state of Bavaria were planned before the New Year's Eve assaults on women in Cologne, which is in western Germany. But the program comes amid growing tensions and increasing concerns in Germany about how it will integrate the 1.1 million asylum-seekers who arrived last year alone.
The legal primer program was initiated by Bavaria's justice ministry. The classes include lessons about freedom of opinion, the separation of religion and state and the equality of men and women.
Attendance for asylum-seekers is voluntary and only those who are likely to receive refugee status are invited to attend, the Bavarian justice ministry said.
Bavaria's justice minister, Winfried Bausback, who taught parts of the first legal education class in the town of Ansbach on Monday, said it's important to give newcomers an early "understanding of our basic values."
"Many asylum seekers come from regions where justice doesn't function or is being abused by dictatorships," he said.
A quote from an educational film they show newcomers is the essence of their message: "Germany is an attractive country because it respects the dignity of every human being — and it is supposed to stay that way."
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is under increasing pressure over her open-door policy to asylum-seekers following the New Year's Eve attacks. Cologne police say 553 criminal complaints have been filed, about 45 percent of which involve allegations of sexual offenses. Police say most of the suspects are believed to be foreigners, including at least some asylum-seekers. Many were described as being of "Arab or North African origin."
Merkel's government on Tuesday announced planned reforms of laws on deportation and sexual offenses that would make it significantly easier to expel immigrants who commit crimes.
Gerhard Karl, the president of the Ansbach regional court, who organized the classes there, said about 60 mostly Syrian refugees participated in the first class and that 20 more classes are planned for the coming weeks.
With the help of an Arabic translator, a judge lectured the students about Germany's basic laws and the equality of men and women in this country.
"First the refugees were a bit shy, but after a while, they participated actively — it was a very interactive lesson," Karl told The Associated Press.
The refugees also received handouts at the end of the class with links so they can watch educational short films by the justice ministry on their smartphones.
In one of the films, the makers use simple cartoons to explain how German law translates into everyday life. Gender equality takes a prominent place.
"Perhaps you already had contact with female police officers, judges or doctors — it's a common thing here in Germany," the short film explains, adding that "women and men are regarded as equals both in profession and family life. This means everyone is entitled to the same amount of respect and recognition."
The film ends with an appeal to all new arrivals to integrate and adhere to this country's norms and traditions.
"This only works if all of us — you too from now on — respect and actively imply these basic values each day."
Migrants in Germany have for years have been offered so-called integration courses in Germany that include 600 hours of language training as well as 60 hours in an orientation class that teaches them about the country's history, culture, political and judicial system. While these classes are mostly taught by regular teachers, Bavaria's approach of bringing judicial professionals to the class room is new in Germany.
The new classes and salaries for the professionals are paid for from the state's 700,000-euro (763,000 dollars) budget for integration measures for 2016.
The classes are being taught with the help of translators and the educational films will be available in German and English, but also in Arabic, Urdu, Pashtu and Dari — languages frequently spoken by many of the refugees from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bausback said the importance of the new legal primer classes couldn't be underestimated.
"We should think of turning this into a mandatory thing," he said.
Follow Kirsten Grieshaber at http://www.twitter.com/kugrieshaber