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Germany | Searching for Shelter

A rush of asylum seekers tests hospitality

By Ragini Bhuyan | 1 August 2015

FRIDAY AFTERNOONS AT THE CENTRE for asylum seekers in Sieversstücken, a cluster of yellow houses in the west of Hamburg, are set aside for community gatherings. When I visited, in mid June, its 300 residents converged in one building to collect their share of bread, groceries, warm clothing and other essentials, donated by the centre’s neighbours. Even after the distribution, gifts of clothing, cutlery, toys and more filled two rooms. Helga Rodenbeck, a long-time volunteer from a church in Blankenese, a wealthy nearby enclave, told me the government plans to soon build housing for another 300 refugees on a vacant plot next door.

Germany, just as all of the European Union, is struggling to deal with rising numbers of undocumented migrants. Many try to land in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, crossing from North Africa in overcrowded and ramshackle boats that regularly do not make it. One sinking in April, the worst to date, is alone thought to have claimed over 800 lives. Most migrants first arrive in the EU’s southern states, but then push on to the richer countries up north. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, detected over 120,000 undocumented arrivals in Greece and Italy in the first five months of this year, part of over 150,000 arrivals across the EU, compared to 61,500 over the same period in 2014. Germany, one of the EU’s richest states and with a particularly welcoming migration regime, is a prime destination, and so is at the heart of the crisis. Now, even this prosperous, largely tolerant country’s hospitality is being tested—signalling a daunting future for migrants in the rest of Europe too, much of which is already less amicable.

Alongside Sweden, Germany has the most liberal asylum policies in Europe. The government has long encouraged its citizens to welcome newcomers, in part to offset a low birth rate, and has tried to absorb their rising numbers. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, in 2014 Germany received more non-European asylum applicants than any other EU state—about 203,000 people, more than two-and-a-half times as many as second-placed Sweden. Over the year, it granted refugee status to roughly 48,000 applicants, allowing them to stay on and receive aid with integration and employment. The totals this year will certainly be higher. The EU has already seen an 86-percent year-on-year increase in the number of first-time asylum seekers in the first quarter of 2015, with a particular surge in applicants fleeing the bloodshed in Syria and the disputed Balkan territory of Kosovo. In Germany, schools, gymnasiums and even swimming pool complexes have been converted into emergency shelters, and large camps have been built to provide temporary housing.

In Sieversstücken, I saw Germany’s hospitality on full display, as it is at similar centres across the country. The federal government distributes asylum seekers between Germany’s 16 states with an eye on local tax incomes and populations. The wealthiest states, such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg, take in the most new arrivals, and affluent Hamburg also receives a large share. Across the city, hundreds of residents volunteer to help, with churches often taking the lead.

The day before I visited Sieversstücken, I was in the affluent neighbourhood of Harvestehude for a meeting of volunteers working with recent arrivals. There, I met Hendrikje Blandow-Schlegel, a member of Hamburg’s state parliament from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, or SPD, a major partner in Germany’s current ruling coalition. “Last year, Hamburg took in close to 11,000 asylum seekers, spending around €300 million in total for their housing and welfare assistance,” she pointed out. “This year, Germany is expecting close to 400,000 asylum seekers, and Hamburg is expecting at least 12,000.”

Blandow-Schlegel acknowledged that the influx has caused disputes. Harvestehude made news last year after some residents objected to plans for a refugee centre in the neighbourhood, and had taken the state government to court. The consequent verdict stated that, under current zoning laws, the government had no right to open a social service institution such as a refugee centre in a residential area such as Harvestehude. Blandow-Schlegel told me the government is working to change the laws concerned so that the centre can be built.

Elsewhere in Germany, disaffection has taken more alarming forms. This April, an arson attack in the town of Tröglitz, in the country’s east, gutted a building freshly remodelled to take in refugees. The same month, the weekly Der Spiegel published police figures on racist incidents, including violent attacks and displays of xenophobia, at accommodations for refugees and asylum seekers across the country: 150 events in 2014, against 58 in 2013.

Last year, a wave of demonstrations led by Pegida—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West—brought thousands out to demand curbs against migration and asylum, especially for Muslims. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, reacted sharply in her customary New Year’s address. “Do not follow those who have called the rallies,” she warned. “All too often, they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.” Counter-demonstrations gained ground, and Pegida foundered after pictures surfaced of its leader posing with his hair and moustache styled after Adolf Hitler’s. Now, the group is seeking to revive its fortunes by launching a national political party. Other anti-immigration groups, such as the Alternative for Germany party, are also on the rise.

A good number of those unhappy with the government’s present policies believe many of the newcomers are economic migrants rather than genuine victims of conflict. The German constitution recognises as refugees only those facing persecution by a state, or victims of conflict as defined under the Geneva Conventions. But the line separating economic migrants from refugees is often thin.

At Sieversstücken, I met a 27-year-old former schoolteacher who fled from Eritrea in October 2013, due, he said, to political pressure from the country’s brutal dictatorship and because “life was difficult.” He asked not to be named, since “the Eritrean government often jails family members of those who escape.” Like many young Eritrean asylum seekers, he complained of being forced to undergo military training. “I lived close to the border with Sudan, so one day I ran away and walked for ten hours to cross into that country,” he told me in halting English. He travelled to Libya, and paid almost $2,000 to board a small fishing boat crammed with over 300 people. “We would not have survived beyond 20 or 25 hours at sea,” he said. “Luckily, after nine hours, we reached international waters and the Italian navy rescued us.” From Italy he made his way to Germany, and applied for asylum in May 2014. There had been no decision on whether, in the eyes of the German state, he qualifies as a victim of persecution.

Like all asylum applications, the young Eritrean man’s could take up to three years to process. In all, only about a quarter of applicants are recognised as refugees, and the rest are deported or allowed to re-apply. But the factors that drove them from home—war, discrimination, poverty—remain, and many are soon back in Europe again. While applicants wait, the German government is obliged to house them, and provide them with benefits on par with the minimums stipulated for its own citizens. The system is considerate, but now risks being swamped. Already, there are signs the government is trying to dam the inflow.

In September, Germany declared three Balkan states—Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, from which it receives roughly a sixth of its asylum seekers—as “safe countries,” providing stronger ground for turning away applicants from them. Beyond that, Germany has been pushing to more evenly distribute undocumented migrants across the EU.

Getting the rest of Europe to cooperate, however, is not easy. Germany’s heavy burden of asylum seekers is proof that other countries are flouting existing rules. The Dublin Regulations, recognised as EU law, require migrants to apply for asylum in the EU country where they first land. Overwhelmingly, these are states on the EU’s periphery—Malta, Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania—with deep economic woes and a reluctance to assume this responsibility. These governments regularly turn a blind eye to migrants moving further into Europe, and sometimes directly encourage them.

In late June, at an EU summit in Brussels, Germany backed a proposal for quotas on absorbing undocumented arrivals. Fractious negotiations ended with an agreement on resettling 60,000 asylum seekers arriving via the Mediterranean over the next two years, but Hungary and Romania were exempted, and the United Kingdom, which is not part of the EU’s open-border regime, exercised a choice to opt out. Susan Fratzke, an expert with the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank based in Washington DC, told me over email that “the Dublin Regulations are complex and poorly implemented,” and that EU governments “have vastly different views on whether and how these rules should be amended.”

While it struggles for consensus on the humanitarian front, the EU has begun operations to capture and sink vessels used by smugglers to carry migrants across the Mediterranean. In July, I spoke about this over email with Julian Lehmann, a researcher on refugee policy and co-author of the book Shipwrecked: The Failure of European Refugee Policy. “The naval operation that is supposed to destroy the business model of smugglers is a red herring,” he argued. For Lehmann, the example not to follow was that of Australia, which forcibly turns back asylum seekers in “a policy of externalization that is not only legally dubious, but is also consuming massive resources, more than a billion euros.” As an alternative, he pointed to how, since 2013, “Germany is running ad-hoc programmes of what it calls ‘humanitarian reception’—it has flown some 20,000 Syrians out of Syrian neighbor states, Egypt and Libya.”

The troubles facing Germany and the EU, Lehmann said, are exacerbated by an international failure to deal with migration and asylum seekers. The world’s industrialised states, he pointed out, “overall buy out of refugee protection; they host only some fifteen percent of them.” In the case of Syrian refugees, for instance, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have for long shouldered the great part of the burden of sheltering them. The United States, he pointed out, has provided some aid to refugees in those countries, but has agreed to take in only 2,000 of them this year. “What we are witnessing is not just a ‘refugee crisis,’” Lehmann said. “It’s also a crisis in formulating global responses to mass atrocities.”

FRIDAY AFTERNOONS AT THE CENTRE for asylum seekers in Sieversstücken, a cluster of yellow houses in the west of Hamburg, are set aside for community gatherings. When I visited, in mid June, its 300 residents converged in one building to collect their share of bread, groceries, warm clothing and other essentials, donated by the centre’s neighbours. Even after the distribution, gifts of clothing, cutlery, toys and more filled two rooms. Helga Rodenbeck, a long-time volunteer from a church in Blankenese, a wealthy nearby enclave, told me the government plans to soon build housing for another 300 refugees on a vacant plot next door.

Germany, just as all of the European Union, is struggling to deal with rising numbers of undocumented migrants. Many try to land in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, crossing from North Africa in overcrowded and ramshackle boats that regularly do not make it. One sinking in April, the worst to date, is alone thought to have claimed over 800 lives. Most migrants first arrive in the EU’s southern states, but then push on to the richer countries up north. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, detected over 120,000 undocumented arrivals in Greece and Italy in the first five months of this year, part of over 150,000 arrivals across the EU, compared to 61,500 over the same period in 2014. Germany, one of the EU’s richest states and with a particularly welcoming migration regime, is a prime destination, and so is at the heart of the crisis. Now, even this prosperous, largely tolerant country’s hospitality is being tested—signalling a daunting future for migrants in the rest of Europe too, much of which is already less amicable.

Alongside Sweden, Germany has the most liberal asylum policies in Europe. The government has long encouraged its citizens to welcome newcomers, in part to offset a low birth rate, and has tried to absorb their rising numbers. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, in 2014 Germany received more non-European asylum applicants than any other EU state—about 203,000 people, more than two-and-a-half times as many as second-placed Sweden. Over the year, it granted refugee status to roughly 48,000 applicants, allowing them to stay on and receive aid with integration and employment. The totals this year will certainly be higher. The EU has already seen an 86-percent year-on-year increase in the number of first-time asylum seekers in the first quarter of 2015, with a particular surge in applicants fleeing the bloodshed in Syria and the disputed Balkan territory of Kosovo. In Germany, schools, gymnasiums and even swimming pool complexes have been converted into emergency shelters, and large camps have been built to provide temporary housing.

In Sieversstücken, I saw Germany’s hospitality on full display, as it is at similar centres across the country. The federal government distributes asylum seekers between Germany’s 16 states with an eye on local tax incomes and populations. The wealthiest states, such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg, take in the most new arrivals, and affluent Hamburg also receives a large share. Across the city, hundreds of residents volunteer to help, with churches often taking the lead.

The day before I visited Sieversstücken, I was in the affluent neighbourhood of Harvestehude for a meeting of volunteers working with recent arrivals. There, I met Hendrikje Blandow-Schlegel, a member of Hamburg’s state parliament from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, or SPD, a major partner in Germany’s current ruling coalition. “Last year, Hamburg took in close to 11,000 asylum seekers, spending around €300 million in total for their housing and welfare assistance,” she pointed out. “This year, Germany is expecting close to 400,000 asylum seekers, and Hamburg is expecting at least 12,000.”

Blandow-Schlegel acknowledged that the influx has caused disputes. Harvestehude made news last year after some residents objected to plans for a refugee centre in the neighbourhood, and had taken the state government to court. The consequent verdict stated that, under current zoning laws, the government had no right to open a social service institution such as a refugee centre in a residential area such as Harvestehude. Blandow-Schlegel told me the government is working to change the laws concerned so that the centre can be built.

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Ragini Bhuyan is a Delhi-based journalist. She reported from Germany as part of the fellowship Media Ambassadors India Germany 2015.

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