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

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.

Depleted mines
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.

German courts have tied themselves in knots over whether the new arrivals are entitled to payments from the country’s complex welfare system and have asked for a final ruling from European courts.

Until then, the German media offers reports of Roma crime clans and anecdotal evidence of welfare fraud, for which no hard data exists. Other reports explain how German companies exploit migrants and how German landlords profit by helping them claim housing and child benefit.

This dialogue of the deaf has little relevance for people on the front line in Duisburg. Still scarred by the memory of the Love Parade stampede that claimed 21 lives in 2010, local politicians can ill-afford further negative headlines. But, staring bankruptcy in the face, Duisburg politicians say they simply cannot afford the estimated €15 million they need to assist new Roma arrivals this year.

Brothels and tower blocks
So far Berlin has knocked back Duisburg's appeals for help, saying the problem can be solved locally. That is cold comfort in Duisburg's comfortable Rheinhausen neighbourhood. In 2009, a local brothel owner began letting flats in a tower block he owned here to Roma families. Within weeks, the 76 units, formerly occupied by 300 people, housed 1,500.

The block has since achieved national notoriety. Windows are broken and boarded-up; a car tyre dangles from a tree stump. Bags of rubbish lie in random piles, surrounded by orange and grapefruit peelings on mud. Outside a boarded-up doorway, there is a choking smell of urine and faeces.

Local man Hans-Wilhelm Halle (65) says his life has become a battle of wills with his new neighbours. “They call me Hitler and Ceausescu combined because I don’t leave them be, as they want to be,” he said. “All we want is that they live by our rules. We don’t want to live in Romania.”

In two months’ time, after 31 years in his home, he and his family are moving out.

“Our problem isn’t with the Roma. If I had their circumstances in Romania, I’d want to get out too,” says his wife, Helga. “Our problem is with the politicians who can’t sort this out.”

At macro level, Germany’s migration problems are insignificant compared with the life-and-death struggles on the EU’s eastern and southern borders. Yet German cities such as Duisburg are a microcosm of the wider EU experience, as migrants settle in places that can least afford them.

For Heiner Augustin, a pastor in Rheinhausen, the tension burst to the surface at a meeting about the Roma when a local man shouted the "subhuman gypsies should disappear". "It was this Nazi jargon that got us worried, and started all local officials talking to each other," said Pastor Augustin.

Cultural integration
Since then the city has hired social workers who can speak Romanian, German language classes have been set up for adults and the Roma children are doing well in local schools. Pastor Augustin says the situation in Rheinhausen is improving, slowly. After four noisy anti-Roma demonstrations by local far-right party, he hopes there won't be a fifth.

Inside the Rheinhausen tower block, the corridors are dark and squalid. Knock on apartment doors, many held in place with putty, and you find spotless flats and scared, suspicious tenants.

“It’s harder than we thought it would be here,” said 22-year-old Ilio (not his real name). “I want a job, I want to say. It’s still better than what we came from.”

Twenty-something couple Mariana and Vasile told a German television documentary last week they live in fear of being sent back to Romania. On the night of the last far-right demonstration, they slept in their clothes – just in case.

“We were terrified for the children, afraid they would throw Molotov cocktails,” said another woman, Salcia. “Some of them showed us knives and how they would cut our throats.”

A local social worker says most migrants are anxious to work – only officially possible since January 1st – and have been surviving since arrival on child benefit, collecting scrap, and, in some cases, petty theft or more serious crime.

Back in Bruckhausen, Duisburg’s Roma migration has familiar echoes for Ali Güzel, sitting in the landmark ThyssenKrupp office block overlooking the migrant ghetto next door.

The 47-year-old man arrived from Turkey in 1977 and has worked at Thyssen since 1984. Now head of the firm’s integration committee, he oversees intercultural courses and activities to integrate the 80 nationalities in the plant, improve the workplace atmosphere and break down what he calls the “wall of estrangement”. When he sees Roma teenagers in the streets, he sees himself: “In the 1980s, the papers here were full of similar stories and pictures, but of us.”

History's repetition
It's hard to watch German history repeat itself, he says. Rather than populist political reaction, he says, migrants need financial assistance coupled with co-ordinated demands to learn the language and culture. Today's Roma children, he adds, are tomorrow's ThyssenKrupp workers.

“You can’t wash this colour out of German society – politicians and companies just need to build a bridge to help people across,” he said. “I find it malicious the way politicians here are trying to cover up their own failings towards these people by scoring points off them.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin