Just weeks after Merkel responded to the refugee crisis with the declaration: “Wir schaffen es – We can do it” – the euphoric mood has been replaced by a more sombre response with the realisation that the newcomers are here to stay, with all the consequences that entails.
School authorities are calling for at least 25,000 new teaching recruits to cope with the large numbers of new pupils, police officers are being brought out of retirement in their thousands, and the nation is being scoured for suitable accommodation as winter approaches.
“The welcome parties in Munich, Berlin and elsewhere were great,” said the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung in a recent editorial. “They showed a generous and open Germany of which we can be very proud, headed by a chancellor who seemed to surprise herself with her response, (and) tens of thousands of volunteers … but now we’re in the stark light of day which consists of overcrowded refugee centres and local authorities and police stretched to their limits.”
Arson attacks on refugee shelters continue on an almost daily basis. Reports of refugees being greeted at the doors of their new homes by neo-Nazis humming Third Reich songs or being pelted with banana skins are not uncommon. There are mounting concerns that elements of the far-right have found new oxygen in the crisis by tapping into ordinary people’s fears that Europe’s largest economy may be unable to cope with the decision to allow so many to take refuge within its borders.
Latest estimates, so far unconfirmed by the government, are that Germany might expect as many as 1.5 million refugees by the end of the year, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are no signs the numbers will let up in the near future, with one government minister warning this week that many women and children can be expected to follow the males who made up the majority of those making the journey first. Merkel’s decision last month to “open the doors”, particularly to Syrian refugees, has attracted growing criticism even within her own party as an estimated 10,000 people continue to arrive every day.
“Over two days that’s the same amount that the British prime minister, David Cameron, said Britain would take over a five-year period,” a television presenter recently pointed out in an almost throw-away remark. The issue will be central to talks between Merkel and Cameron when they meet at Chequers on Friday. On Wednesday, 34 local officials from Merkel’s Christian Democrats party wrote her a letter in which they voiced their concerns that her refugee policy had gone too far.
“The open borders policy we are now implementing is not in line with either European or German law, nor does it reflect the CDU’s programme,” they wrote.
None of the signatories holds a particularly significant position in the party. But their angry appeal amounts to the biggest party rebellion Merkel has ever faced. And the fact that they have voiced the anxieties of those on the frontline of this refugee crisis – the communities across Germany who say they are struggling to cope – will mean they can hardly be ignored.
The chancellor’s popularity ratings have taken an unusual hit, particularly in the former communist east where anti-immigrant sentiment is at its highest. But appearing on a television chat show on Wednesday night, Merkel insisted she would not try to limit the influx. “How should that work?” she asked the presenter. “You cannot just close the borders.”
Earlier in the day she told the European parliament that the EU needed to overhaul its rules on immigration. But concerns are being expressed across the political landscape, with many from the Greens and Social Democrats divided between their party principles – which they have to admit are in line with Merkel’s – and the daily reality of overstretched municipalities.
Reports of a youth community project having to move out to make way for an asylum seeker shelter, or a woman living in local authority housing being forced to downsize so that her flat could be used by refugees are regularly making the headlines and stoking resentment. “The message needs to reach the top, as to where the problems lie, and that we’ve reached a limit,” Wolfgang Rzehak, of the Greens, who heads Bavaria’s regional council recently told the daily TAZ.
He described the particularly bizarre but real challenge of having on his doorstep the A8 motorway on which people smugglers have been regularly transporting refugees via the Balkans, Hungary and Austria, and leaving them at the side of the road.
“Sometimes the smugglers arrive in the middle of the night and drop underage refugees off at the service station. The police call my child protection officer at 3am, who has to go to them, and if no accommodation can be found, he often ends up taking them home with him,” he said.
As everywhere from aircraft hangars to former offices of the Stasi are commandeered as shelters and even ordinary Germans are being asked to take refugees into their own homes, Hamburg, Bremen and other cities have said they will seize vacant commercial property from its owners as an emergency measure. Local authorities say their hands are tied. But they are only too aware of the danger of the refugee project backfiring badly if local communities feel they are being deprived of their sports halls or youth clubs for too long.
Amid all the upheaval and uncertainty, Merkel has dismissed accusations that she reacted on a whim when she actively welcomed Syrians in particular to come to Germany.
On Wednesday she signalled the extent to which she remained committed to her refugee policy by making her own chief of staff the country’s refugee tsar. Peter Altmaier, a burly man and a veteran member of the CDU, has effectively replaced Thomas de Maiziere, the interior minister, who was handling the refugee brief but had started to openly question Merkel’s position.
Her decision to elevate Altmaier effectively means that, just weeks after her first ever visit to an asylum seekers’ home in her 10 years as chancellor, she has brought the refugee issue right into the heart of her chancellery.
Responding to accusations that she had no coordinated plan, she has created a taskforce across the government, giving each ministry a specific area of responsibility, covering everything from transport to education, and has said the issue will be discussed prominently at every cabinet meeting. Just a couple of months ago it was the Greek crisis dominating her agenda. Now that is hardly ever spoken about.
Reiterating her commitment in a half-hour radio interview with Deutschlandfunklast weekend, to mark 25 years of German reunification, Merkel insisted that, just as Germany had been capable of managing that huge task, it was wholly suited now to absorb and integrate the large numbers.
“We are willing to tackle the responsibility of integration,” she said, “and I appeal for us not to reject it – there’s no point in that – but for us to take it on board … and then to shape it so that it grows into something that is of benefit to us all.”
The underlying message the government has sought to spread in the hope of keeping the debate on a positive trajectory is that Germany desperately needs migrants to fill a growing skills shortage in the workplace amid its own pending demographic crisis, owing to an ageing population and a chronically low birthrate.
The average immigrant in Germany is a startling 29 years younger than the average German, who is 46. But, as Naika Foroutan, a social scientist and deputy head of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (BIM), warned in the TAZ, “the narrative that’s being propagated that ‘we need immigrants in order to secure our pensions’, is too utilitarian. It will quickly crack at the first sign that immigrants are not in fact so useful according to our performance indicators. But they’ll still be there – the children, the ageing, the traumatised, and what do we do with them then? Deport them?”
The Süddeutsche editorial also points to the complexities of a million or more people, almost none of whom speak German, trying to find a place in German society, let alone in the country’s rigidly structured workplace.
“Well-educated engineers, doctors and economists are coming. But there are also plenty of illiterate people, stunned by their new world,” wrote the paper’s Matthias Drobinski. “Ultra religious Muslims – and Christians – are coming face to face with a society that is indifferent to religion. Newcomers with rigid moral codes must learn to deal with the fact that in Germany gay people can openly kiss each other.”
The challenges of integration are already much in evidence in the shelters, where reports emerge every day of clashes between residents. Some are triggered by petty rows over queuing for food or the toilet, or over privacy.
“It’s little surprise when the shelters are often overcrowded, privacy is minimal and the majority of the people are young men, frustrated and with little to do,” said one volunteer from one of the many charities that are largely responsible for running them.
At LaGeSo, the State Office for Health and Social Services in Berlin, where refugees go to be registered, both the chaos and the tensions among the estimated 1,500 people waiting for their number to be called – some of whom had been there for 35 days, were keenly felt one day last week.
“I cannot even get into the queue where people are waiting to pull a number,” said 61-year-old Ahmad Nasar from Syria, highlighting the chaos which officials have readily admitted is largely due to understaffing and bureaucrats overwhelmed by the extraordinary situation.
Nasar clutched a certificate from a dentist saying his false teeth were completely destroyed and needed to be replaced. In the rare instance that the door opened and someone’s number was called, the waiting crowds erupted in a mix of both cheers and jeers.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mohammad Kheir Al Mousa from Deir ez-Zor in Syria said he and his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Amera, were sleeping rough in the park opposite in order to ensure they were first in the queue in the mornings. They had been waiting for one month and had still not managed to register, he said.
Four Afghan brothers who said they had worked as translators for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) but had been forced to flee from the Taliban; a nine-year-old Syrian girl called Hadig, her arm decked in loom bands, and 55-year-old Shah Mohamad Tagi, whose face had been badly burnt in a bomb attack on his native home town of Herat, Afghanistan, all told similar stories that underlined the sense of pandemonium.
“Angela Merkel invited us,” said Tagi, through a fellow Afghan who spoke English. “But now we’re here, there’s no sense of order. We don’t know what’s going on. No one’s talking to us.”
Jens Spahn, a leading member of the CDU and a highly popular politician with the potential to one day succeed Merkel as the party’s head, is a subtle but intelligent critic of her embrace of refugees, as well as of what he calls the “euphoric representation” of the refugee situation in the media and public debate.
“There are only the extremes, the self-styled downright good guys and the rabble-rousing xenophobes, but nothing in between,” he said recently. “Which ignores people’s completely legitimate questions, like ‘how many refugees are coming next year? Will you have the situation under control? And for how long will Germany be able to cope?”