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Germany's Refugee Policy Tested By New Arrivals

Sep 16, 2013
Originally published on September 16, 2013 12:43 pm

As many as 5,000 Syrian refugees are moving to Germany this month after Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed to a U.N. request to host them. But they aren't receiving the warmest welcome in a country where a growing number of Germans are unhappy about the steady stream of asylum seekers. Fanning the flames are right wing extremists, who want Germany to close its doors to refugees.

Among their targets is Hellersdorf, a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Berlin. The city government has placed refugees from war-torn countries in an abandoned high school there — a move that had led to multiple demonstrations, both for and against the refugees.

Many Hellersdorf residents say they opposed the protests, which were largely staged by out-of-towners, but they aren't happy their community is forced to host refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, either. The blue-collar neighborhood filled with Soviet-era apartment blocks lacks the ethnic diversity seen in much of Berlin. It is also short on services and schools. City planners who spent billions of dollars renovating other parts of the German capital have largely ignored this community.

Wariness At Growing Numbers

"We don't know these people; they come from another country," says 25-year-old resident Enrico Kieser. "I wasn't worried so much about them raising the crime rate, but large numbers of them moving in could cause problems."

Another 22-year-old resident who would only give her first name, Nikke, says she feels less safe walking around her neighborhood with the refugees here, and accuses the male refugees of harassing women.

"I've had to walk around at night carrying a truncheon, and that's not right," she says.

German groups like the National Democratic Party, or NPD, are playing on such paranoia, especially during Germany's national election season. It has hung campaign posters in Hellersdorf featuring a photo of a blond woman next to another woman whose face is covered with a black veil. The slogan reads: "Maria, not Sharia," referring to Islamic law. Most of the refugees at the center are Muslim.

Manfred Rouhs, of the anti-refugee Pro-Deutschland group — he once ran for local office on the NPD ticket — says the government has no right to force German communities like Hellersdorf to take refugees in.

"Records show that more than 90 percent of the asylum seekers who come here are economic refugees and are in no way being persecuted," he says.

Rouhs says Syria's neighbors — and not Germany — should be helping the refugees.

It's an argument playing out elsewhere in Europe. Last month, a proposal in the Swiss town of Bremgarten to segregate asylum seekers from the rest of the population drew support from the head of the country's immigration office, but criticism from human rights groups.

'Heavily Traumatized'

But while few Germans share Rouhs' views, officials say they are encountering growing resistance to opening new refugee centers.

That's bad not only for the city, but for the refugees, says Monika Lueke, who is the Berlin Senate's commissioner for integration and migration and integration.

"Many of them are from Syria and Afghanistan, and they are heavily traumatized," she says. "They have gone through civil war, they have seen people in their families dying, and they have fear; and it's not acceptable for them to be confronted with demonstrations like this."

Lueke added she prefers to integrate the refugees by placing individual families in apartments across the city, but that a housing shortage has forced them to open emergency shelters like the one in Hellersdorf. Refugee advocates reject the government's explanations. They say the German government should have planned long ago for the refugees given the fact that the number of asylum seekers in Germany has doubled every year recently.

Across from the new Hellersdorf refugee center, activists gather to bring attention to the refugees' plight.

"Everybody agrees that this is about the worst place you could put any human being in," says activist Dirk Meiser. "This school was closed about five years ago because it was so rotten that people said there is no financial way we can actually redo the school again.

"Now, five years later, they open the doors, move people into former classrooms, and tell them, 'Well you can live here.' "

The few refugees who venture outside the center are too afraid to talk to reporters. Most of the neighbors steer clear of the activists. But one 80-year-old resident shyly approaches them with a question. Her name is Else Haussig, and she tells the activists she wants to donate stuffed animals, toys and curtains to the people living at the school.

"We should make it as easy as possible for the refugees," she says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The chemicals weapons deal may indirectly influence the Syrian civil war. Syrian forces appeared to feel the need to use those weapons, and using them again may become more difficult with inspectors ranging across the country. But the agreement does not directly affect the war at all. The shooting continues. And according to the U.N., more than six-and-a-half million Syrians have been displaced.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, we'll report on a country where some are seeking shelter. Germany agreed to take in thousands of Syrians, but they may not receive the warmest welcome. Right-wing extremists want Germany to close its doors to refugees. Extremists are targeting a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Berlin, which is where we find NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Chancellor Angela Merkel is asking her fellow Germans to welcome 5,000 Syrian refugees. But in Hellersdorf, few people appear to be heeding her call.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

NELSON: Raucous protests by out-of-towners engulfed the East Berlin suburb weeks before the first Syrians arrived. There were demonstrations for and against refugees placed in an abandoned high school here. Many Hellersdorf residents say they oppose the protests, but they are not happy that their community is hosting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, either. This blue-collar neighborhood, filled with Soviet-era apartment blocks, lacks the ethnic diversity seen in much of Berlin. Hellersdorf is also short on services and schools. So when government officials set up a refugee center here last month, people were upset.

ENRICO KIESER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Resident Enrico Kieser says his neighbors worry the newcomers will strain already inadequate services in Hellersdorf, especially if hundreds more move in.

NIKKE: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Another resident, who only gave her first name, Nikke, says she feels less safe walking around her neighborhood with the refugees here, and accuses the male refugees of harassing women. Extremist factions are playing on such fears, especially during Germany's national election season. The right-wing MPD Party has hung campaign posters in Hellersdorf featuring a photo of a blonde woman next to another woman whose face is covered with a black veil. The slogan reads: Maria, not Sharia, referring to Islamic law. Most of the refugees at the center are Muslim.

MANFRED ROUHS: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Manfred Rouhs, of the anti-refugee Pro-Deutschland group, says the government has no right to force German communities like Hellersdorf to take refugees in. He argues that it's Syria's neighbors who should be helping the refugees, and not Germany. While few Germans share his views, officials say they are encountering growing resistance to opening new refugee centers. That worries Monika Lueke, who is the Berlin Senate's commissioner responsible for refugees.

MONIKA LUEKE: Most of them are from Syria and Afghanistan, and they are heavily traumatized. They have gone through civil war. They have seen people and their families dying. And they have fear. And it's not accepted before them to be confronted with demonstrations like this.

NELSON: Lueke says officials in Berlin have no choice but to put refugees in places like the old school in Hellersdorf because of the major housing shortage here. But refugee advocates say the German government should have planned long ago for the refugees, given the fact the number of asylum seekers in Germany has doubled every year recently.

DIRK MEISER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: In Hellersdorf, Dirk Meiser is one of a group of activists who gather across from the new refugee center every day to show their support for the asylum seekers.

MEISER: Everybody agrees that this is about the worst place you could put any human being. And this school was closed about five years ago because it was so rotten that the people said there is no financial way we can actually redo the school again. Now, five years later, they open the doors, move people in former classrooms and tell them, well, you can live here.

NELSON: The few refugees who venture outside the center are too afraid to talk to reporters. Most of the neighbors steer clear of the activists. But one 80-year-old resident shyly approaches them with a question. Her name is Else Haussig.

ELSE HAUSSIG: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She tells the activists she wants to donate stuffed animals, toys and curtains to the people living at the school. Haussig adds: We should make it as easy as possible for the refugees. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.