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800 plus attacks on refugee shelters in Germany

By Rashme Sehgal
Last updated on: September 24, 2015 12:31 IST
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A young migrant girl holds up a sign during a protest in front of a train at Bicske railway station, Hungary.


As German makes provisions to accept 800,000 refugees this year, the nation is split vertically on the crisis with refugee shelters attacked with Molotov cocktails and swastika signs painted outside many refugee homes.

Rashme Sehgal reports for from Heidelberg on how Europe's refugee crisis is playing out in Germany.

As Germans get ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the unification of East and West Germany in October, the refugee influx into the country could well see its social fabric being ripped apart with Germans living in the east and west taking opposing views on this controversial issue.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted that all the 28 nations who are part of the European Union 'take equal responsibility for refugees seeking asylum,' and Germany is making provisions to allow 800,000 refugees enter its borders this year. So far over 230,000 refugees have sought refuge in the country.

The eastern part of Germany has reacted with hostility to this influx and a large number of the 800 or more attacks on asylum shelters that have taken place have been on that side.

Dr Angelika Lossack, a former member of the German Bundestag (parliament) and a leading member of the Green Party, believes, "The people in the east (former East Germany) have a racist attitude towards foreigners. Refugees living in shelters and in deserted hotels and motels have been attacked with Molotov cocktails and swastika signs have been painted outside many refugee homes."

"The eastern side has also witnessed a large number of anti-refugee rallies organised by a new party, the Alternative for Germany, which has increased its membership in a short time by launching a strong anti-immigration campaign," Dr Lossack, a sociologist who has taught at the University of Heidelberg, adds.

She believes this unprecedented antagonism has been caused by the fact that the eastern side confronts higher unemployment as compared to its western counterpart and because the economic avenues for job growth are fewer in that region.

"When the first influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine began arriving in Germany," she says, "we understood that they were coming from a war zone and were fleeing for their lives."

"Many voluntary organisations came forward to help. People living in north-west Germany, in cities like Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Heidelberg, continue to have a more welcoming attitude," the sociologist adds. "Refugees in these parts are not subject to persecution and we are confident that over a period of time, they will integrate into our society."

Gudrun Sidrassi-Harth, who runs the NGO Asylarbeitskreis devoted to taking care of refugees for the last two decades, admits that some newly built camps even in western Germany have been attacked in the past few weeks.

"Such large scale arrivals are creating major organisational problems for the State and municipal governments. Last year, the federal government received 200,000 applications for refugees, but up to end-July, we have received 400,000 applications and the numbers are going up by the day," says Sidrassi-Harth.

All the refugees, she says, are taken to a central reception area where they are housed for a few days. Here they are given a health check. Finger and foot printing is done after which the refugees are transferred to different German states where they stay in camps for a period of three months after which they are entitled to work within that particular municipality.

After a 15 month stay, they can work without any kind of restriction. Every state accepts refugees according to its capacity, Sidrassi-Harth adds.

"Every refugee in a camp is entitled to 330 euros (about Rs 25,000) a month towards food and housing expenses. These refugees are also given a card to meet their medical insurance which is paid for by the federal government. The federal government has agreed to give one billion euros to the different states towards meeting these expenses," says Sidrassi-Hath.

But she expresses horror at the policies being pursued by other European nations.

"The Hungarians have wired their border with Serbia and anyone who enters that country is immediately jailed and considered a criminal," she says. "The situation is the same in Bulgaria. Poland is willing to accept only a few Christian refugees."

The problem, she adds, is compounded by the fact that 40 per cent of all refugees coming in from the Balkans are immigrants looking for asylum and therefore not subject to the same laws that govern refugees.

The law has made it very clear that immigrants have to be deported to their home countries

But this can only happen after the host country (where they arrive) goes through a differentiation process between those who are refugees and economic migrants in search of employment.

"Countries like Greece and Italy are flooded with refugees and immigrants arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, and African nations like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Ethiopia," Sidrassi-Harth says. "To determine under which category these new arrivals fit is a difficult and time consuming process."

"In Italy, some stations like the main railway station of Milan are so crowded that one can no longer enter it," she adds. "Over 100,000 refugees are living on the streets of Italy. The situation is even worse in Greece which is the first port of arrival crossing over from Asia."

Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Europe, says 300,000 refugees have entered Europe using the Mediterranean sea route this year.

"We have to understand the problem in its widest dimension as there are 60 million refugees who have been displaced worldwide," Edwards says.

"I know the present environment is difficult for countries, but host communities have a burden to bear and they must be willing to bear it. They are subject to international and legal obligations and must therefore come up with a common approach whereby all nations will share the burden in an equitable manner," he adds.

Edwards cites the example of Lebanon, with a total population of 4 million, which presently hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees. This has put a huge strain on Lebanon's infrastructure.

Another UNHCR spokesperson Antonio Guterres points out that Turkey is presently home to more than two million refugees from regional conflicts, including Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.

The problem is further intensified by human trafficking cartels who charge up to 15,000 euros (about Rs 11 lakh/Rs 1.1 million) to transfer a refugee across the conflict zones of Syria and Iraq from where the refugees are transferred in boats to Greece and Italy.

Having completed this long and dangerous journey, these refugees often head by foot and train through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary before arriving in western Europe.

Such journeys are fraught with danger. In 2015 alone, according to UNHCR estimates, 2,500 people have died making the journey.

One reason for Germany accepting larger numbers of refugees is because the country is faced with an aging population and needs a younger workforce to replace it. But even Germany knows it cannot take on an indefinite number of refugees. This is why German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere suggested recently that refugee camps in Turkey be set up to process immigration requests.

IMAGE: A young refugee holds up a sign in front of a train at the Bicske railway station, Hungary. Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

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Rashme Sehgal in Heidelberg