Can we do it? A view of the refugee crisis response from Schorndorf, Germany

By Tina Kreitmayr

I got back to Germany in September after a year abroad and I was very curious about the situation of refugees in my medium- sized, Southern German home town. I had heard all the great stories about public engagement in Berlin and Munich, but I did not quite know what to expect in Schorndorf, Baden- Wuerttemberg. It is a small city with a population of about 38,000 inhabitants located 25 km east of Stuttgart. Known as the “Daimlerstadt”, Schorndorf is highly influenced by the economic power of the Stuttgart Metropolitan Area. I knew that the city had welcomed 450 refugees, all men living in two sports and concert halls.

This is of course just a very small fraction of Germany’s refugee intake. In September, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, predicted that over one million people would seek asylum in Germany in 2015 (by way of comparison, the figure was 202,000 in 2014). In this on-going progress, Germany has surprised the world and itself with a warm welcome to refugees. In Munich, the police had to stop the public bringing donations and the Berlin-based project refugees welcome has gone global. But recent events have also been a cause for concern and fear as the country faces the unknown.

Since May, Germany has found itself in the rapid process of action and reaction influenced by an uncountable number of internal and external factors. At the forefront is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is polarising as ever. Celebrated by those who admire her courage and support her forwarding policies and clear direction, she is also dealing with a lot of resistance. In October, her popularity hit a four year low with a declining prognosis. Critics accuse her of being responsible for the refugee crisis – or at least to have exacerbated it by declaring that any Syrian who could reach the country could claim asylum in Germany. Others state that she is ignoring possible consequences and confronting her people with unsolvable problems and personal detriment. Even politicians of the CDU/CSU faction express uncommonly strong criticism.

During a summer press conference about the refugee crisis in Berlin in August, Merkel emphasized that ‘we (the people) can do it!’. A statement which has been extensively discussed and questioned since. But what exactly does it mean?

I had my first encounter with refugees in Schorndorf on my first night back in Germany when I walked home passing by the city hall. Around 20 men were silently sitting on the stairs in front, busy with their mobile phones. Apparently this was the only spot with free Wi-Fi in the entire city.

About one week later, I did some research on how to engage with refugee integration efforts in Schorndorf and was pretty surprised. An initiative has been founded with almost 1,500 volunteers trying to provide a warm welcome and basic supplies. In cooperation with the local German Red Cross, many projects were established in order to make the long and nerve-racking asylum procedure as pleasant as possible. Bicycle and tailoring work shops were set up to keep the men occupied, donations were centrally pooled, organised and then fairly distributed, and language and sports classes were established. I also signed up to volunteer and I got a very kind email from someone who thanked me for my engagement, but also told me that I now was on a waiting list in this matter.

German class. Photo by the author.

German class. Photo by the author.

A couple of days later I got the chance to visit refugee accommodation with a friend’s father who was one of the camp coordinators. I was welcomed with a cup of coffee and a challenging table soccer match. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed, and besides the 48 refugees, about 30 locals were sitting in front of the building, chatting and having a good time with each other. I got to know a group of Syrians and Pakistanis who were motivated and willing to take German to the next level, so the coordinators and I agreed to establish a further language class. I started working with five young men once a week and by now we are a group of 12 meeting at least two or three times a week. Most of them have been in Germany for five months, two of those in Schorndorf. They say that compared to what they have been through during the flight on the Western Balkan route, German bureaucracy seems rather tolerable – even though the waiting is exhausting. One of the men got separated from his wife during the registration process. She was assigned to a camp in Bavaria, which means they are not able to see each other as they are not allowed to leave the federal state they are in. Some of the group finally got their asylum application interview date for the end of October. To date, they haven’t heard back as to whether or not they will be allowed to stay.

Delays are inevitable owing to the organisation of the registration procedures for asylum seekers. The authorities at the borders and the initial registration facilities are overwhelmed. Some people are registered six times, while others are not after being on-site for several days. The overall asylum procedures take up to 6 months, which is very long, costly and above all frustrating and nerve-racking for asylum-seekers living in bad conditions. In this context, the possibilities for the public to interact are limited, but Bundesrat and Bundestag (the legislative branch of the German political system ) finally agreed on an amendment to improve this situation, which became effective 1 November. This includes the acceleration of asylum procedures.

In the long-run, more issues will occur throughout the integration process for those who are granted asylum. Particularly, accommodation and job opportunities are essential to consider. Most cities in Germany are noting a housing shortage. On the one hand, apartments and houses are scarce and therefore expensive. On the other hand, due to the good economic situation of recent years, social housing has been neglected by many municipalities. Given the current situation, 400,000 apartments are estimated to be lacking in the next five years. The suggestion of some mayors to appropriate vacant housing encountered massive resistance. In this context, communities need to rapidly reinforce their social housing projects and encourage landlords to rent to refugees.

A further important step towards integration of refugees is job placements. The current unemployment rate is at a record low at 6.5% (though this is highly dependent on the geographical area) and many industries report a shortage of skilled workers. These seem to be good preconditions for a satisfactory number of job placements for refugees. However, it is shown that the refugees’ educational and professional level are often not congruent with the requirements of the German labour market. Estimates suggest that only 15% of all asylum seekers finished high school or graduated, in contrast with the high level of professionalism in Germany. Aggravating this is the lack of German language and the long, expensive and often unsuccessful processes of recognition of foreign educational qualifications. In this context, it is important to pursue a sustained language learning approach right from the beginning of the asylum procedure and to facilitate the recognition process of educational qualifications. Furthermore, business owners and companies should be encouraged to employ refugees and to offer training initiatives in cooperation with local educational institutions.

But it is exactly these integration approaches that cause significant concerns in the population. Many locals fear that they will be in direct competition for housing and jobs, possibly at a disadvantage if active integration is subsidized by the state. Another major concern can be found regarding the funding for integration initiatives. The actual costs of the asylum procedures and integration of refugees are pure speculation. It is estimated to cost Germany between € 10 and 20 billion every year – and that is only considering the people seeking asylum in 2015. The funding of the asylum procedures is mostly the responsibility of municipalities and the federal states. Once asylum is granted, all people are legally entitled to social insurance including health care and unemployment insurance as well as pension payments, which are federally funded. Angela Merkel still insists that the refugee crisis will not lead to any tax increases as Germany’s economic situation is good. However, fast and successful integration in the labour market is essential in order to take the pressure off social security. This highlights the problem with the plans of Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to only grant “subsidiary protection” to refugees: integration will be much more difficult because this status does not contain a work permit.

Further concerns revolve around the cultural norms and values of those coming from countries so different from Germany. The atmosphere captured by the media, shows that many fear that society and social interaction will be influenced by the integration of refugees. Indubitably, there will be a cultural adjustment, so it is very important to include a cultural exchange and the communication of values, norms and laws in the integration process and emphasise the importance of them.

All these concerns and fears are justified and the government should use open dialogue with the public to provide clarity, to eliminate inaccuracies, and to find answers and solutions in order for ‘us to do it’. Unfortunately, other groups are actually able to exploit these concerns and fears for their own objectives. The anti-Islam political organisation Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) or the Eurosceptic, right- wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) are as popular as ever. With slogans and rallies, which are based on the public’s fears, they started radical right-wing and antidemocratic campaigns. In September, AfD- politician Björn Höcke stated that: ”blonde women must now be afraid” and at the Pegida anniversary demonstration 15,000 people participated (thankfully 15,000 opponents were there as well). Recently, The Canadian government even warned against travel to some areas of East Germany as a consequence.

Although only a minority of Germans actually identify themselves with these groups, the danger of far right-wing propaganda is recognisable. In 2015, already 490 attacks on asylum seeker accommodation were reported (153 in 2014), including 61 arson cases. Here, the government and society is equally in demand to suppress xenophobia right at the beginning.

Schorndorf. Photo by Hans Bischof.

Schorndorf. Photo by Hans Bischof.

Despite these challenges, my home town surprised me, and seeing the public engagement and the potential for peaceful coexistence makes me believe that we can actually do it. Arguably, Schorndorf has probably the best conditions with an unemployment rate of 3.3% , sufficient financial resources and no record of xenophobia. But it is also showing that with good will and engagement, we are able to create a home for those, who lost theirs.

The other day in class we talked about how we picture our future. Most of the men would actually love to go back home, but considering the circumstances they are looking forward to being reunited with their families and starting a safe life here (At this point this is rather uncertain as the “subsidiary protection” is only granted for a year and does not include a family reunification). They asked me what I was planning to do and I told them that I was applying for jobs pretty much everywhere except here in my hometown. One Syrian looked at me and asked:’ Why would you want to leave paradise?’

Tina has an MSc from the University of Essex in Organisation Studies and International Human Resource Management focusing on the implementation of a strategic HRM approach in NGOs. She has a BA in Business Administration. Being the granddaughter of migrants from East Prussia, migration was always a topic discussed in her family. After high school she worked in a school for refugees and immigrants in Trondheim, Norway for one year. Tina is currently located in Zürich, Switzerland working for a consultancy firm supporting GOs and NGOs operating in a fragile context.

 

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