Mixed feelings as German town hall houses asylum seekers

Many show solidarity with newcomers but ask why Germany bears brunt of crisis


When I enter the redbrick Berlin church and see the packed pews it feels like I’ve stepped back in time to 1989.

Looking closer, only the lack of East German perms and stone-washed denim confirms that this isn’t a vigil against the Politburo. This is definitely 2015 and the crowd – mostly women over 50 with short greying hair – are residents of the well-heeled west Berlin neighbourhood of Wilmersdorf. They talk politely, but the atmosphere is charged.

Last week, they woke up to hear that Berlin city authorities had requisitioned Wilmersdorf town hall. The four-storey building, part of a Nazi-era ensemble on the busy Fehrbelliner Platz, had stood empty since the municipal administration moved into a nearby premises in December. Now it is emergency accommodation for asylum-seekers and this meeting has been called to discuss the consequences.

‘Hated myself’

After years of watching on television, the reality of Europe’s refugee crisis has crashed into the heart of the German capital and this well-off, western Berlin neighbourhood. My neighbourhood.

It’s a rude awakening for many because, even during the peak of the euro crisis, Germany was insulated from the turbulence outside. Keeping things calm at home is a key to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political popularity, and her legacy hinges on how she copes with this new challenge.

She all but admitted as much last week, saying the refugee crisis “will occupy us far longer than the question of Greece or the stability of the euro”.

A few days later Germany rounded up its refugee and asylum seeker forecast for 2015 to 800,000, almost double the previous estimate. Even given Germany’s 82 million population, it is a massive number – the equivalent of Ireland receiving 40,000 new arrivals.

Convert the German numbers to the Irish population and Germany is trying to absorb, in one year, a population the size of Drogheda.

Federal interior minister Thomas de Maizière has warned that, with around 16 percent of the EU’s population, Germany can’t continue to accept indefinitely 40 per cent of the continent’s asylum seekers.

“We won’t let our partners . . . evade responsibility,” he said last week, floating the idea of reintroducing border controls if there is no improvement.

Berlin is pushing for the existing “Dublin” system – where arrivals are obliged to file for asylum in the first EU country they enter – to be replaced with a new distribution system based on weighted population and economic factors, similar to that already in use in Germany.

Without a change, German officials fear the worst. After years of polite apathy, the refugee issue has now ignited – figuratively and literally.

On Tuesday night a building intended for asylum seekers was set alight near Berlin, the 203rd such attack this year – more than in all of 2014.

In Heidenau, near Dresden in eastern Saxony, dozens of police were injured in a weekend standoff with far-right mob over asylum accommodation in an empty DIY store.


Despite an ageing population, many of Ms Merkel’s political allies insisted until recently that Germany was not a traditional country of immigration. Small wonder, then, that not all are convinced now by politicians’ claims that younger refugees are just what Germany needs.

Eastern Germany has just 17 per cent of the population but registered 47 per cent of attacks on asylum homes, the sad legacy of a quarter century of unification rebuilding that prioritised road-building but not boosting weak civil society structures.

The result is plain to see: easterners facing high rates of joblessness and poorly-paid precarious employment are ripe for extremists.

German politicians rarely visit these areas, nor do they have answers to German involvement in the causes of the refugee crisis. Such as how, in the first half of 2015 alone, Germany green-lighted arms exports worth €6.35 billion’s worth – almost as much as in the entire calendar year 2014. Arms exports to Arab states and northern Africa – from where millions of people are fleeing – more than doubled to €587 million.

Though much is in danger of going wrong in the refugee crisis in Germany, a lot has already gone right. Across the country, ordinary citizens have united to bridge the gap left by over-burdened local authorities. In a country where many expect the state to take care of everything, this show of pragmatism is a miracle.

Back in the Wilmersdorf church, local mayor Reinhard Naumann says that the arrival of 500 asylum seekers in the former town hall has brought him messages of support but also anonymous hate mail.

“This is completely unacceptable given our own history of flight and displacement,” he said. “Let’s ask ourselves how our parents and grandparents felt in 1945.”

Around the church, heads nod and eyes tear up at the memory – suppressed in Germany, forgotten elsewhere – of the calamitous post-war expulsion of around 12 million ethnic Germans from what is now Czech and Polish territory.

What remains the greatest mass migration in human history may yet be surpassed by the current crisis.

A few streets away at Wilmersdorf’s former town hall, volunteers from the ASB charity managing the facility say they have been bowled over by locals donating food, clothing, furniture – and their time.

In a few days they’ve set up a children’s playroom, a schoolroom. In the once empty courtyard of the former town hall, children play happily while their exhausted parents look on.

“In 40 years of catastrophe assistance all over the world, I’ve never seen solidarity like here,” says Fritz Kuhn of ASB, choking up.

“These people who’ve seen terrible things can sit in the courtyard, watch their children play and, for a while at least, let their soul be free.”