Duisburg’s post-industrial zone lures Roma it struggles to support
Squalid buildings in an area to be razed serve as crammed homes for migrants in the western German city
Flats occupied by Roma in Duisburg. An estimated 20,000 have arrived in the city in the last two years. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
A girl on a staircase in a Duisburg block that houses Roma. Beyond the dark corridors can be found spotless flats and scared, suspicious tenants. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Hans-Wilhelm Halle, who is leaving his home after a battle of wills with his new neighbours. “They call me Hitler and Ceaucescu combined because I don’t leave them be, as they want to be,” he said. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Houses due to be demolished, near the ThyssenKrupp steelworks. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Mailboxes and doorbell signs outside Roma homes in Duisburg. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Overflowing bins outside a Roma block in Duisburg. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
The streetscape looks like the set of a war movie. Apartment blocks are either sooty and boarded-up or jagged, half-demolished ruins. Exposed gable walls are multicoloured grids of vanished rooms; empty sites are filling up with blue rubbish bags and bits of sofas.
This is what is left of Bruckhausen, a former workers’ quarter in the western German city of Duisburg. With an autobahn on one side and the ThyssenKrupp steel plant on the other, Bruckhausen is disappearing one building at a time to make way for a city green belt.
Until the demolition crews arrive, enterprising local landlords have rented vacated apartments to Roma families who have arrived here in the last six years. It’s easy to spot the Roma houses: boarded-up doors hang ajar, mailboxes are covered in scrawled and scratched-out Romanian names.
Next to one such house, Mehmet Yildirim sits in his cheery cafe. A youthful 60-year-old with a greying moustache, he was born in Turkey, came here aged 15 as a so-called “gastarbeiter” (guest worker) and worked at the Thyssen plant until he opened his cafe 20 years ago.
“We came here with work contracts and somewhere to live, these people come here with nothing, with far fewer jobs on offer here,” said Yildirim. For years he battled city authorities to improve facilities in Bruckhausen. The arrival of the Roma and fresh problems – rubbish, crime and other antisocial behaviour – made him give up. “I want the city to demolish my place,” he said. “Do you know how painful it is to say that?”
Duisburg had problems long before the Roma arrived. Some 150 years ago, people such as Irishman Thomas Mulvany transformed the Ruhr region into Europe’s industrial heartland, with massive steel factories powered by local coal.
The mines have all but gone and Duisburg’s ThyssenKrupp steel factory is one of the last. City unemployment rates of up to 15 per cent, twice the national average, are just one indicator of deep structural malaise reflected across the entire Ruhr.
Into this social and economic decline came the Roma, an estimated 20,000 in the last two years, attracted by the promise of low-cost accommodation from Turkish and Serb landlords with whom they could communicate. The situation was already at breaking point when Germany opened to Bulgaria and Romania on January 1st, and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer declared war on “welfare migrants”, promising to “boot out” those defrauding the system.
Facing local and European elections in coming months, Seehofer was accused of populist scare tactics to shake off competition from new, hard-right political parties. His critics said criminal Roma were a tiny minority of a migration wave of Romanian doctors and Bulgarian engineers from which Germany has profited.