Divided nation – Germany’s refugee crisis

Sunday afternoon in Germany – the usual time when Germans sit down for coffee and cake. In my mother’s house the table is neatly set, complete with an ornately decorated cream tart. At four o’ clock on the dot the doorbell rings and family arrives.

The conversation flows easily until we reach the topic everyone talks about, at least here in Germany: the huge influx of refugees and how to deal with it.

“There are too many of them,“ my cousin says, “the truth is, we can’t take them all.“

His wife agrees although she notes that people flee Syria and Iraq for a reason. “Of course nobody wants to send them back,“ she says, “but why should Germany shoulder this alone? If more countries took more refugees it wouldn’t be a problem.“

Both are very clear: Germany has done enough and borders should be closed. In their view Chancellor Angela Merkel is failing German citizens by sticking to her open arms approach to immigration.

My mother says very little. She has vivid memories of the bombing raids during WW2 and the fate of those who lost their homes or who had to flee from the advancing Soviet army. Later she tells me that she doesn’t quite share our relatives’ view. She feels that, as human beings, we have a responsibility towards the people who reach Germany, exhausted and with nothing but worn shoes, inadequate clothing, a few belongings and the hope for safety. On the other hand she also fears for the stability of the country in the face of  hundreds of thousands of newcomers who need housing, schooling and jobs – and not everyone of them will prove to be a law-abiding citizen.

The new wall in their heads

Over the next few weeks I come increasingly under the impression that Germany is divided again, but this time not in a geopolitical sense. This time Germans are divided over the unresolved refugee crisis. The rift runs through hearts and minds and affects all parts of society, from the political top brass in Berlin to ordinary citizens.

1.1 million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 alone. And there is no end in sight. In January 2016, at the time of my visit, around 2000 refugees crossed the border between Germany and Austria every day. Compared to last November numbers are down significantly. But as long as the situation in their home countries doesn’t improve people will flee the shelling of their houses, the bombings of their cities and the ISIS terror. They will keep trying to reach Europe via the notorious Balkan route and on flimsy boats across the Mediterranean Sea. Their numbers are predicted to soar again once the winter is over and better weather conditions make the journey less hazardous.

Given that so many refugees came to Germany over the past 12 months I expect to see a difference in the streets, in shops or when using public transport. But no, the picture doesn’t seem to have changed. My hometown of Essen, a city of over half a million people in the centre of Germany’s former industrial heartland, has always been a melting pot. The coal mines and steel mills attracted workers from Poland, Italy, Spain and Greece. From the 1960s onwards mainly migrants from Turkey settled in the region. Sharing public space with people of Middle Eastern appearance is a normal part of everyday life here.

“Sometimes you recognise refugees by their clothes,“ my friend Susanne points out. “They may wear shoes which don’t fit very well or clothes which don’t seem to suit them. This is because they get clothing from donations.“

A retired language teacher, she teaches German in one of the refugee homes. “I’ve never stood in front of students so eager to learn and so disciplined,“ she says with a laugh. On a more serious note she adds:

“But it’s also difficult. Most Syrians and Iraqis are highly motivated, learn quickly and are keen to integrate themselves. They are the ones who want to get on with their lives, are willing to work and find jobs. Others don’t have the same ability to learn and struggle to adapt. They store up resentment towards those who are more successful. This can lead to tensions between different groups.“

Add to that an enormous backlog of asylum applications yet to be processed and the necessity of finding ever more beds for the steady stream of incomers and it is easy to appreciate the frustration among some refugees and locals. Communities across Germany have set up temporary housing in disused public buildings or as tent and container villages on brownfield sites. Even on formerly sacrosanct green belt sites refugee homes are being built. A refugee reception centre has recently opened in the green belt south of Essen. Newly arrived refugees are sent here for registration and filing asylum applications. After a few days they are moved on.  The centre offers space for 800 people. Residents from the neighbourhood are offering support as volunteers. This isn’t always the case and plans to build refugee accommodation in green spaces can also be met with fierce opposition from locals.

One evening, while sitting with friends in a pub, I can’t help overhearing people talking animatedly at the table next to us. One of them gets off his chest what bugs him about refugees: “Last Sunday I watched this kids’ programme together with my granddaughter. You know what? They showed this Syrian family. Here in Essen. They were given a newly refurbished flat. Really smart. With balcony and a kids’ room. Did I have my own room when I was a child? Of course not – we had to make do with what space there was. The guy even took pictures on his smartphone and sent them back to Syria. And when his friends see what they can get here for free, they all want to come.“ The others nod. The speaker orders another round.

Incidentally, I know the programme. It has been a regular feature on German TV for the past 30 years and is known for its high-quality, educational content. Out of interest I watch this particular episode online. The ‘guy’ is Omar Al-Abdullah, an electrical engineer. He, his wife and five children are from a town in east Syria. Bombs destroyed their house and reduced their once flourishing town to rubble.  Omar’s car was hit by a rocket and went up in flames. He survived with severe burns. After the wounds had healed he decided to bring his family to a place where children can grow up in safety. They arrived in Germany last autumn after a risky and torturous journey by dinghy across the Aegean Sea, by foot through Serbia, by bus through Hungary and by train to their destination in Germany. First they were put up in a tent village in the city of Duisburg. Weeks later they were sent to a site with weather-proof winter tents in Essen. Finally they were allocated the ‘newly refurbished flat’. It’s a two-bedroom apartment in one of the less desirable areas of the city. None of the children has a room of their own, kitchen facilities are basic. But it’s a start. They are now recognised as war refugees. Omar can look for a job, the children can go to school.

Education and integration

But how can education be provided for children who come from different cultural backgrounds, are traumatised by the horrors of war, only speak their native language and can’t read western letters? These children require extra attention and support. Wendy, a former teaching colleague, is headteacher at a primary school in a neighbouring city.

“In our catchment area there are so many refugee children that we can’t support them individually in normal classrooms,“ she tells me. “Therefore we had to set up a separate class where we can help them to learn the basics and to adjust to school life. At the moment we don’t get extra resources for that. But we try our best and most of the time we cope well. But just one staff member phoning in sick is enough to create havoc.“  And almost apologetically she adds: “That doesn’t mean that we don’t want refugees. Of course we want to help. We have to. It’s just that it would be good to get one or two more teachers and a bit of extra money to pay for additional materials and media.“

Given the magnitude of the crisis one may be forgiven for imagining Germany as a country overwhelmed and overrun by hoards of desperate foreigners throwing public life into chaos while an all too well-meaning government, represented by Chancellor Angela Merkel, keeps imposing a so-called ‘welcome culture’ on the nation and turns a blind eye to reality. Those, at least, are the concerns of  Germans on one side of the rift who are opposing Merkel’s course of action. They are the ones who saw their worst nightmares come true on New Year’s Eve when mobs of men, mainly from North Africa and the Middle East, targeted women in Cologne and other German cities in order to mug and sexually assault them.

The events pushed the country into turmoil.  Most certainly they were grist to the mills of far right populists and the anti-Islam movement Pegida (‘European Patriots against the Islamisation of the West’). Loudly and clearly they trumpeted their “We told you so“ message at their rallies in Dresden and elsewhere. Angela Merkel, her government in Berlin and the allegedly biased ‘mainstream media’ were once again condemned by self-professed custodians of Germanic values. Far right hatreds and violence against refugees, already on the up in 2015, increased further.  And while most ordinary Germans had welcomed the refugees last summer, there were now signs of doubt. Optimism gave way to realism: things wouldn’t be the same again in Germany and, yes, taking another million of refugees – the predicted figure for 2016 – might prove to be too much for a country already under strain. There were also those who weren’t prepared to abandon humanitarian principles because of one unprecedented and, hopefully, isolated incident. In defiance they took to the streets to send a signal against xenophobic and racist scare-mongering.

Carnival fun and fear

There was and is wide agreement that, while cultural aspects might have played a role, the acts of the men who assaulted women at New Year should primarily be seen as despicable criminal offences. Refugee groups also stepped forward and expressed their shame and anger at the violence against women committed by other immigrants. In some cities they gave roses to passers-by. With the carnival season just around the corner people were understandably nervous.

Would it still be safe to venture out in fancy dress and join the huge street parties in Cologne and elsewhere along the Rhine Valley? But on the day of the Rose Monday parades police were on high alert and the celebrating crowds lining the pavements were in high spirits – in more ways than one. Everything went smoothly and confidence was restored.


Meanwhile a public inquiry has been launched to investigate how the situation at New Year could get out of hand to such an extent. The report is due in autumn.

At the time of my visit Germans were still trying to come to terms with what happened. The event has yet again put the refugee crisis in the spotlight. Almost every night the issue is hotly debated in talkshows all over the TV channels. Some participants advocate a cap on refugee numbers. Others call for closing the border altogether. Opponents argue that this would lead to illegal mass immigration across unguarded sections of the border. Claims are made that more needs to be done to make refugees familiar with European values and ‘our’ way of life. Questions are asked about the police response at New Year. The growing phenomenon of vigilante groups causes much controversy, from heartfelt approval to outright condemnation.

Clearing the fog

Yet there are some points on which they all agree. A clear distinction needs to be made between people seeking political asylum, war refugees and economic migrants; registration and distribution of new arrivals need to be more efficient; asylum applications need to be speeded up; refugees need to be given priority over economic migrants from safe countries.

Since New Year the government’s tone has changed. New legislation for asylum seekers and refugees is underway. At the political level there is agreement which rules should be tightened. For example, it will be easier for the authorities to reject those who don’t comply with immigration regulations or who come from safe countries; Algeria, Morocco and Tunesia have been added to the list of such countries; migrants will have fewer options to get their families to join them. The parliament in Berlin will vote on the new legislation before the end of February. In a recent government statement on the refugee crisis Angela Merkel confirmed that refugee numbers need to be reduced. She outlined three main steps on how to achieve that: tackling the causes why people flee, protection of the border between Greece and Turkey, controlling and channelling refugee migration to and within Europe.


That the government begins to change tack undermines the arguments of right-leaning populists who see the political establishment in general and Merkel in particular as the real reason for Germany’s problems. The right-wing ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) party, known for its anti-Merkel resentments, capitalises on the current situation. The protectionist camp applauds AfD politicians when they demand to “switch off the immigration magnet“, i.e. to deny refugees access to the country. But with more hard-nosed government policies on migration on the horizon the AfD feels it needs to step up its rhetoric. At the end of January, in a newspaper interview, the party leader says that, as a last resort, weapons should be used against refugees who try to cross the border illegally. The next day her deputy backs her up on Facebook and goes even further. When asked by a user whether border guards should use weapons against illegal female immigrants with children, her answer is simply: “Yes.“

The result is a huge public outcry. The very idea of German border guards shooting at refugees conjures painful collective memories of the people who died trying to flee the former GDR. Even some AfD supporters are appalled. The party backpedals a bit. The AfD leader emphasises that nobody would want to shoot at people, yet she defends her comments by saying that they only represent accurate interpretation of existing law. The deputy leader even manages something like an apology. Nevertheless the AfD is accused of intentionally breaking a taboo: the unsayable has been said, the unthinkable has been planted into people’s minds. On Facebook some anti-immigration minded users are now talking openly about “defending“ Germany against the “attacks“ from refugees.

Following the public debate I am more and more convinced that the real enemies of post-war Germany are not to be found among Middle Eastern war refugees but among modern right-wing demagogues and their followers. Germany has been successful in building an open, liberal and democratic society. Despite all its problems and imperfections this society is a good place to be. Now it’s also a place under attack from AfD, Pegida & Co. So far it has withstood these attacks.

After three weeks I leave a country that has changed a lot since my last visit. But regardless of where Germans stand in the current debate on refugees, most of them agree that the situation is complex and won’t go away overnight. As long as Syria is torn apart by civil war and as long as ISIS terror continues people will seek refuge in Germany and in Europe. It’s a fact we all need to face up to, somehow.

Main photo: Freedom House

Cologne carnival photo: Marco Verch CC By 2.0




  1. Keith Howell says

    Regina Erich does us all a service here with such balanced and thoughtful insights into the situation in Germany, reflecting the experience of a range of people trying to respond to the pressures of refugees. We all see short news reports and wonder at how all involved are managing on a day to day basis. In this excellent article Regina has helped answer a number of questions about the practical realities and the sometimes conflicting influences impacting on Germany today.

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