Nervous welcome for arrivals in small Bavarian town

Home of Erdinger beer now hosts thousands of refugees on old military airfield

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen in front of a former aicraft hangar transformed into an asylum waiting center, in Erding. Photograph: Armin Weigel/EPA

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen in front of a former aicraft hangar transformed into an asylum waiting center, in Erding. Photograph: Armin Weigel/EPA

 

A little girl of three or four totters by in a washed-out red dress, candystripe tights and turquoise wellingtons. With a blond, naked doll under her arm she hums absently to herself, lost in thought. What is she thinking? What has she seen in Syria, and on her flight to Germany? What will become of her?

The thought is broken as another white bus pulls up into the camp and disgorges more arrivals – Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis – with gaunt, haunted faces and the same matte coating of dust and exhaustion that seems to absorb, not reflect, the sharp winter sun.

We’re just outside Erding, a market town of 36,000 near Munich that is as Bavarian as it gets, with pretty plastered houses and churches with onion- domed spires.

Home to Erdinger beer, Erding is home too to 1,700 new refugee arrivals. And, since last month, Erding is also home to one of Germany’s two new refugee Warteraum (waiting rooms) on a disused military airfield.

When Heiko Werner was last here in 1991 as a soldier the airfield’s half-cylindrical hangars housed war planes. Now, filled with bunk beds in chipboard cabins, the 18 hangars are homes to those fleeing war.

About 40 per cent are from Syria, 20 per cent each from Afghanistan and Eritrea and the rest from other countries.

With up to 7,000 people still arriving daily in Germany, the Warteraum is an overflow facility for up to 5,000 people. At present, around 1,200 people arrive and leave in a 24-hour period.

“We are here to give breathing space for politicians to decide what happens next,” said Werner, of Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees, which set up the camp in a month.

Shrapnel wounds

Mr Werner says the camp is working well despite the ongoing challenges. Key to this, he says, was the political signal of Angela Merkel’s “we can manage this” assertion in August.

That, coupled with Berlin’s open-door policy to Syrians, may have amazed Germany’s EU neighbours and annoyed political allies at home. But such an order from the top, Werner says, was essential to ensure Germany’s complex federal system pulled together to manage a mass migration wave of historic proportions.

“Something like this, that once took centuries, has now, in our globalised, hyperlinked world, reached the same scale in a few months,” he said. “People get here, send selfies of themselves saying ‘here I am’, and of course others follow.”

Martin Bayerstorfer has noticed the refugee selfie phenomenon too. The office of the local Landrat, or district administrator, overlooks the local savings bank and, from here, he remembers watching a Syrian man emerge a few weeks ago and take a selfie with a fan of banknotes before his face.

Migration caps

Christian Social Union

Their demands are quickly shot down elsewhere in Germany as populist or xenophobic but, as the crisis drags on, Bayerstorfer is confident they are gaining public support.

“We have to analyse things soberly and our hearts have to be at the table,” he said. “But our heads, too.”

In the Erdinger Bräustüberl, home of the famous beer, local man Wolfgang Kraus finishes his Weisswurst lunch with a resigned sigh. On refugees, he says, Germany is trapped.

“We’ve done ourselves proud organising camps and welcoming people, but no one can say what happens next or how we are going to manage this in the future,” he said.

Rather than debate about practical measures, he worries that Angela Merkel’s “we’ll manage this” maxim has allowed other EU states to lean back and fold their arms, delighted to let the finger-wagging Germans twist in the rough refugee wind.

And while Berlin fights for solidarity on refugees in Brussels, locals in Erding say the political uncertainty is poison for the volunteer effort that has held things together so far.

As the Christmas market is assembled in Erding, many here argue that the decades-old taboo over nationalism – for understandable, historical reasons – has left the country tip- toeing around national interest issues in the refugee crisis, lacking confidence to present a clear national plan with coherent integration demands.

“Ordinary people with real concerns who get no answers will be pushed into the far-right camp that offers the simple answers to complex problems,” said Hans Moritz, editor of the Erdinger Anzeiger newspaper.

Train departures

She volunteers at a home for unaccompanied minors in Erding but, with five vanishing each night, she isn’t sure for how much longer. Germany, she worries, is barrelling down a road to refugee hell paved with good intentions.

“We’re working as best we can but we’re so frustrated,” she said. “No politician can tell us what the plan is. We’re battling windmills.”