Germany | Searching for Shelter

A rush of asylum seekers tests hospitality

01 August 2015
In April, arson gutted a building readied to take in refugees in Tröglitz.
HENDRIK SCHMIDT / AFP / Getty Images
In April, arson gutted a building readied to take in refugees in Tröglitz.
HENDRIK SCHMIDT / AFP / Getty Images

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.

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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