The leader of Germany’s opposition conservatives apologised on Tuesday after being widely criticised for accusing Ukrainian refugees of “welfare tourism” and taking advantage of the country’s hospitality.

Friedrich Merz, who took over as the head of Angela Merkel’s party earlier this year, had accused the German government of triggering “social tensions” in Germany with its refugee policies.

In an interview with Bild TV on Monday evening, Merz said special treatment for refugees from Ukraine was leading to “considerable distortions”.

“We are now experiencing welfare tourism among these refugees — to Germany, back to Ukraine, to Germany, back to Ukraine,” he said, suggesting that “a large number are now taking advantage of the system”.

Merz published an apology on Twitter on Tuesday and said he regretted his use of the phrase “welfare tourism”.

“Far be it from me to criticise refugees from Ukraine, who are facing a hard fate. If my choice of words was perceived as hurtful, then I sincerely apologise,” he said.

Merz’s comments had provoked a fierce backlash, with Interior Minister Nancy Faeser among those to criticise the 66-year-old.

“Using Ukrainian women and children who have fled Putin’s bombs and tanks to make a political point is shameful,” she wrote on Twitter.

The outgoing Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, also tweeted in response to Merz’s remarks.

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“Where does this nonsense about alleged ‘welfare tourism’ of Ukrainian war refugees come from?” he wrote.

Germany has taken in almost one million refugees from Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbour in February.

People from Ukraine can register to get a special status that entitles them to social benefits, medical care and accommodation, as well as access to integration courses.

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