Germany Has a Refugee Problem, and the Problem Is the Germans

Anti-immigrant sentiment is fueling violence and arson. What's the matter with Deutschland?

FRIEDLAND, GERMANY - DECEMBER 10: Unidentified Syrian refugees arive at the refugee center on December 10, 2013 in Friedland, Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled Syria to neighboring countries as well as to Europe. Germany is accepting up to 5,000 Syrian refugees, though German church leaders recently called on their country to take at least 10,000. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
FRIEDLAND, GERMANY - DECEMBER 10: Unidentified Syrian refugees arive at the refugee center on December 10, 2013 in Friedland, Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled Syria to neighboring countries as well as to Europe. Germany is accepting up to 5,000 Syrian refugees, though German church leaders recently called on their country to take at least 10,000. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

REICHERTSHOFEN, Germany — It was just before 3 a.m. on July 16 when firefighters arrived to find part of the former Däuber inn in flames. The white, three-story guest house on Winden am Aign’s main drag had long been empty. Now, smoke was billowing out of the brown-trimmed windows and onto a street lined with tidy Bavarian homes and tomato plants.

It didn’t take long to put out the flames eating through the back annex and locate the cause: Fire accelerant was found by two rear doors. The blaze was started on purpose.

Dozens of asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq, and other countries had been scheduled to move into the building in September. Winden has just 830 residents and many of them protested plans to house 130 asylum-seekers in their town, saying the number was too many for such a small town. They negotiated with officials and settled on 67, instead.

Michael Franken, the mayor of Reichertshofen, the larger town that incorporates Winden, had lobbied to turn the vacant building into a home for the growing number of asylum-seekers arriving in his district. Before the fire, he’d thought the fight was over. “Only eight residents showed up to the last meeting we had, which shows how much the debate had died down,” he said. “So we were even more surprised and incensed when the fire happened.”

Nobody was injured, and the front wing of the building — where asylum-seekers will live next month — was undamaged. But the reaction has been strong and swift. District officials have redoubled efforts to clean up the damage and welcome the new residents on schedule. And a 50-person police commission is working to find out who was behind the arson.

“If the person who started the fire really wanted the building to burn down, they would have done it differently,” Franken said. “This seems to be more of a signal.”

Since the start of the year, there has been a spate of arson attacks on housing for asylum-seekers across Germany as the country grapples with a swell of anti-refugee sentiment. The attacks have sparked nationwide angst and fueled a simmering debate over what should be done with the hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, traversing the Balkans, or finding other paths to what they hope will be security in Europe’s wealthiest country.

From January through early July, the Federal Ministry of the Interior registered 202 attacks on shelters for asylum-seekers — more than all of 2014. The vast majority have been attributed to right-wing extremists. The arson attacks have targeted buildings, not people, but the Interior Ministry has also recorded cases of violence.

Four Syrians were assaulted on July 25 in the state of Thuringia, and a day earlier Red Cross workers in Dresden were verbally and physically harassed while setting up a temporary tent camp. “I’ve never before seen Red Cross helpers attacked in a civilized country like Germany,” the head of the organization’s regional branch, Rüdiger Unger, told news media.

Authorities have scrambled to crack down on the violence. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière vowed to “draw a line in the sand.” But it’s not clear who’s behind the incidents — if it’s the work of organized groups like the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany or individuals, or both.

On July 17, Google was forced to take down an anonymous map detailing the exact location of hundreds of asylum homes across Germany over concerns it could be used to pinpoint targets. Titled “No Asylum Center in My Neighborhood,” the map has been linked to The Third Way — a far-right group that has seized on the influx of refugees and the fears that has unleashed among some Germans.

“That’s the great danger, that those racist views and propensity for violence reaches normal people, that they start taking part in racist protests,” said Robert Lüdecke of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based NGO combating right-wing extremism.

The success of Pegida is an ominous example. The anti-Islam movement drew tens of thousands of people to the streets of Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, and other cities early this year to protest a perceived threat of Islamic extremism. The grassroots group has attracted far-right supporters but also resonated with a large cross section of ordinary Germans. They want the government to curb what they deem unchecked immigration.

The protests have died down, but Pegida has announced plans to create its own political party ahead of next year’s regional elections. Anti-refugee sentiment has touched a nerve at a time when record numbers of people are seeking shelter in Germany. The government received nearly 203,000 asylum applications last year — more than twice as many as any other country in the European Union. And that number is expected to double by the end of this year.

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution, from Syria to Eritrea, are appealing to Berlin for protection. Many receive it. Of the more than 34,000 Syrians who submitted asylum applications in the first half of this year, only seven were denied permission to stay according to data from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

That comes as the European Union is wrangling over a contentious plan to overhaul its immigration system. A recent proposal would see Europe distribute asylum-seekers according to a quota system, based on a country’s size, economy, and other factors. Britain and a host of Eastern European nations have refused. Germany, which stands to take in the most asylum-seekers under the new proposal (18.4 percent), supports the plan: It would help regulate how many migrants Berlin is expected to shelter as waves of asylum-seekers continue to arrive.

Authorities here have been unprepared for the influx. Aydan Ozoguz, the federal commissioner for migration, refugees and integration, said the government has just approved 2,000 new positions to help work through a backlog of over 240,000 asylum applications.

The responsibility for housing refugees falls on states, and they have hastily arranged makeshift reception facilities in gyms and tents. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government committed an additional 1 billion euros for support. But refugee groups say Berlin has consistently underestimated the amount of time and funds needed.

“The [federal] government has reacted far too slowly in allocating more money towards shelters for asylum-seekers — that would help relieve the burden on states,” said Marei Pelzer of Pro Asyl, a refugee organization based in Frankfurt. “A lot has been discussed and announced, but very little has been implemented.”

“It’s still not a lot of people for such a large and rich country like Germany,” she added.

Ozoguz, the commissioner, says the government has instituted some important changes — freeing up asylum-seekers to find jobs while they wait for their applications to be processed, for example. The rest takes time. “I find it a bit dishonest when people say we could have been better prepared — you can’t just create an apartment building in one year, not in the amount we need,” she said. “I think we’re doing a really good job.”

The process has been slowed by a huge surge in asylum-seekers from the Balkans. More than 30 percent of last year’s applicants arrived from Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania — especially from the latter two countries, according to the Interior Ministry. A lack of job opportunities in the region have spurred many to try their fortune abroad.

But by German law, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia are deemed “safe-origin” countries — meaning it’s presumed that asylum-seekers from those nations are not in danger of persecution. Poverty doesn’t justify asylum, so the vast majority of applications from those countries are rejected.

Yet they keep piling up. Now, state leaders are warning they’re reaching their financial and organizational breaking point. Some are taking matters into their own hands. Bavaria’s conservative state premier, Horst Seehofer, announced plans to set up reception centers specifically for processing and rejecting migrants from the Balkans. Refugee organizations accused him of creating deportation camps on the border.

“The centers might not be the answer, but we have to process applications faster,” said Ozoguz. “Everyone’s asking themselves if another 400,000 come next year, will we manage?” That question has dominated public discourse in recent weeks. A study by public broadcaster ZDF showed Germans believe the influx of asylum-seekers is the most pressing issue facing their country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel drew international attention earlier this month when she told 14-year-old Reem Sahwil at a televised youth forum not everyone can stay. The girl, a Palestinian refugee facing possible deportation, ended up in tears. Merkel was mocked incessantly at home and abroad.

The rash of arson attacks has only fueled the hand-wringing. An article in the daily national Süddeutsche Zeitung lamented the country’s growing xenophobia with the question, “Is Germany on the verge of exploding again?”

The July 25 edition of the news magazine Der Spiegel featured portraits of asylum-seekers under the title “Hatred of Foreigners Poisons Germany.” In a scathing online commentary, the journalist Maximilian Popp accused his countrymen of turning a blind eye to a crisis in their midst. “Germans, who love to be appalled by the injustice in the world, by the Islamists in the Middle East, and the tax evaders in Greece, largely accept the excess of violence in their own country with apathy,” he wrote.

This week, TV presenter Anja Reschke put the issue front and center once again when she discussed the surge in racism on a nightly program on the national public broadcaster. “If you’re not of the opinion that all refugees are spongers who should be hunted down, burned, or gassed, then you should make that known, oppose it, open your mouth, maintain an attitude, pillory people in public,” Reschke said. Her two-minute segment has attracted thousands of views and fierce online discussion.

At the same time, a quiet but powerful counter-movement has sprung up, too. Activists and human rights organizations have staged pro-refugee demonstrations. Volunteers have banded together to form local welcome groups and offer German classes for asylum-seekers.

In the southern town of Remchingen, some 500 people turned out on July 26 in a show of solidarity after a planned asylum shelter there, too, was set ablaze the previous weekend. When neo-Nazis protested refugees in Dresden on July 24, they were met by a far larger counter group.

Before the fire at the asylum shelter, things in Reichertshofen had been going well. More than 70 asylum-seekers already live in town, and some (especially those with families) are there to stay.

In a quiet corner at the heart of town, more than 40 asylum-seekers share a multistory house. Ahmad Yousfi arrived a year ago from Damascus. He was in the military service and fled to avoid the war. His siblings are scattered around the world — Dubai, Sweden. The 33-year-old now splits the bottom floor with eight other Syrian men, all strangers.

He has been granted a three-year visa and is taking German classes every day while searching for a place of his own that he can afford. He’s less optimistic about finding a job before his German is good enough.

Sitting over cake with the mayor, Ahmad insists he has never felt uncomfortable or unwanted in Reichertshofen. The flow of donated clothes, bicycles, and televisions hasn’t let up. And he has broken bread and sausages with the locals at the summer festival.

Personal contact has proven to be the key to breaking down barriers between such vastly different cultures, backgrounds, and languages, says the mayor. “You meet each other, you get to know each other, you say hello — and the distance disappears.”

Photo credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Sumi Somaskanda is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.