Refugees Welcome in Germany? Please Take a Number

Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Refugees and asylum seekers wait to regisert outside the LaGeSo in Berlin  © Julia Brooks

A long line forms most days in front of the “LaGeSo” – the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or State Office of Health and Social Affairs. LaGeSo operates as the central registration center for refugees in Germany’s capital, Berlin. Here, refugees stand in line for a numbered ticket, then wait an unpredictable further amount of time for their number to be called. When their number is called they can then officially register as asylum seekers, which is necessary in order to gain access to social benefits including housing, financial assistance, healthcare and most importantly for their ability to remain in Germany in the longer term, the opportunity to file an asylum application. For months, up to 2,000 newly arriving men, women and children have been waiting daily in front of the building; the office hands out 300 to 350 waiting numbers each day, but averages even fewer registrations. As a result, some people have been waiting here for weeks – increasingly in the cold and rain; some are even suing the city for failing to register them promptly. Last week, the city opened a new refugee registration center to speed up registrations to about 400 people per day and “improve the humanitarian situation,” in the words of one city official. Yet with Germany as the primary destination for the vast number of refugees arriving in Europe, need far outweighs available support. While a notable number of civil society initiatives have emerged in Germany and indeed across Europe to assist refugees, state responses have lagged behind, creating a critical protection and assistance gap.

Open borders, closed doors

When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in late August that Germany’s borders were open to refugees, she bent EU regulations and propelled Germany into a moral and political leadership role in response to the European refugee crisis. Some even suggested that Merkel should receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership in the refugee crisis, at considerable economic and political cost. Others point to the economic strength and capacity of Germany to afford refugee resettlement efforts in the short term, and even to the long-term benefits of immigration in light of Germany’s aging population. Perhaps Merkel didn’t have much of a choice: most refugees reaching European shores from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and elsewhere set out with Germany as their intended destination, and unlike Hungary, Germany was unwilling to use border fences, police or the military to keep refugees out. Some say it is a matter of Germany’s historical responsibility arising out of the Second World War, and the resulting displacement crisis that provided the impetus for the establishment of contemporary international refugee law. Others, especially Berliners, take particular pride in their recent history of tearing down border walls, rather than erecting them. Regardless of its motivations, Germany faces a tremendous task in integrating the over one million refugees expected to arrive this year.

German institutions are struggling to register, process, house, educate, employ and integrate refugees – after years of municipal budget cuts, some say they are doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. Yet as refugees face increasingly wintery conditions in Germany and across Europe, they are bringing into sharp relief the need for states to implement an organized and sustainable humanitarian response to the refugee crisis that remains lacking. The director of Caritas in Germany recently warned that, “Among those waiting [outside the LaGeSo] are small children, who are standing around shivering and turning blue in the cold. We can no longer exclude the possibility of deaths.” In cities across Germany, about 42,000 refugees have been housed in unheated tents, despite near freezing temperatures at night. While cities have opened thousands of reception centers, public apartments and even primary homes to newly arriving refugees, it simply is not enough to keep up with the numbers of arrivals.

Protection gaps are also arising in terms of the safety and security of refugees in Germany. At the LaGeSo in Berlin, a private security firm serves to keep refugees out of the building until their waiting numbers are called, yet refugees complain that these guards do little to protect those in the camp. In a case of suspected kidnapping, German police are still searching for missing 4-year old refugee Mohamed Januzi, who was last seen on surveillance cameras being led away from the camp by an unidentified man on October 1st. Incidents of theft and fraud, violence and recruitment by radical Islamist groups have also been reported in the camp. Furthermore, neo-Nazi attacks against refugees and asylum seekers, in particular arson attacks on – in most cases empty – refugee housing, have become a frighteningly common occurrence in Germany, and are seldom prosecuted. Henriette Rekera, a candidate for mayor in the western German city of Cologne, was recently stabbed in the neck one day before the election in a suspected attack on her pro-refugee and immigrant stance; she survived the attack and won over 52% of the vote. Such violence towards migrants and their supporters must be addressed through both vigorous prosecutions of the attackers – something as yet lacking – and longer-term efforts to overcome societal tensions resulting from increased migration to Germany, and increased diversity in German society. This will require strong political leadership willing to speak out against intolerance and violence as unacceptable in a democratic society, and reframe immigration as a benefit, rather than a cost, to society.

Civil society attempting to fill the gaps

As German state bureaucracy struggles to provide sufficient protection and assistance to the large numbers of arriving refugees and asylum seekers, civil society groups are attempting to fill the gaps. In contrast to the aforementioned acts of anti-migrant or anti-refugee violence and opposition, there has also been a competing pro-refugee narrative – and action – throughout Germany society. As thousands of refugees arrived at the Munich train station last month, they were greeted by cheering German crowds and so many donations that local authorities asked residents to hold back. Indeed, there has been a palpable outpouring of community support for refugees throughout Germany, with numerous local initiatives emerging to help feed, clothe, house and educate new arrivals. The slogan “Refugees Welcome” can be found in fresh graffiti across the country. At the LaGeSo in Berlin, neighborhood volunteers distribute donated clothing and personal items to those waiting to register, while the Catholic relief organization Caritas has set up tents to provide meals and other assistance to refugees.

These volunteer and civil society efforts have been a notable feature of the current European refugee crisis, and while laudable, they highlight the slow and hesitant response of European states. Indeed, many humanitarian agencies – headquartered in Europe but traditionally operating abroad – have been slow to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe, possibly out of a reluctance to absolve capable yet unwilling states of their own responsibility, out of uncertainty over their mandates, or simply as a result overstretched capacity and resources. “If it weren’t for the volunteers, nobody would be helping these people,” commented German reporter Norbert Siegmund after a recent visit to the LaGeSo; similar patterns have been noted in countries of transit and arrival across Europe, including on the island of Lesvos where organized humanitarian operations have been slow to catch up with volunteer efforts.

As the European refugee crisis moves into the longer term, however, we must reassert the responsibility of states and the international community to provide protection and assistance to refugees, and reinforce this responsibility through improved policies and programs. In opening its borders to refugees, Germany not only took a domestic stand on behalf of refugees – which it must now uphold through improved protection and treatment of refugees and migrants domestically – but it also sought to influence others to follow suit. Merkel has repeatedly emphasized that a responsibility to provide refugee assistance applies not only to Germany, but rather to Europe as a whole. This will require sustained efforts to provide refugees with sufficient protection in the immediate term, and viable resettlement options in the longer term, whether in Germany or elsewhere. This includes dignified treatment in transit and upon arrival, with legal recognition of refugee status and rights, with accompanying access to work, education, and other opportunities for integration. It also includes the expansion of legal means of migration and asylum such that refugees need not undertake life-threatening journeys at the hands of human traffickers and criminal gangs in order to find safe haven. Furthermore, political mediation is required across Europe to foster regional solutions to this regional crisis, including enhanced financial, legal and technical assistance to states and civil society organizations with even less capacity to respond, and enhanced coordination across states, humanitarian agencies and civil society to keep up with dynamic assistance and protection needs of refugees. Many are also calling on countries beyond Europe – such as the United States or wealthy Gulf states – to take in and assist more refugees, especially those fleeing the Syrian crisis. Indeed, the responsibility to protect and assist refugees extends to the international community at large, which can and must gather the political will and resources to address record levels of mass displacement, and ultimately to stem the conflicts that are causing it. Every state has role to play in ensuring that refugees receive the humanitarian protection and assistance they require.

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