Three days ago, the city of Schwäbisch Gmünd launched an unusual project. While the station was being renovated, nine asylum seekers were hired to assist passengers with their luggage. They were paid 1.05 per hour, the maximum allowed by Germany's asylum laws.
But on Wednesday, Deutsche Bahn pulled the plug on the project, saying they couldn't support such a working arrangement.
"Deutsche Bahn has only now become aware of the concrete conditions of employment," the company said Wednesday in a statement. Starting Thursday, they said, the asylum seekers will be replaced with temporary employees who will help passengers transport their bags between platforms.
When passengers complained about lack of accessibility at the station, Mayor Arnold posted a call for helpers at a local housing complex for asylum seekers. Nine of the 250 residents volunteered for the service and began work on Monday. But when the conditions of the job became known to the public, various media outlets voiced criticism of the project, prompting Deutsche Bahn to step in.
The city's mayor, Richard Arnold, told reporters that he was "disappointed and surprised" about the decision. The asylum seekers themselves, he says are "very dejected" that the project has been shut down.
Bernd Sattler of Asyl, a citizen initiative focused on refugees in Schwäbisch Gmünd, echoed this disappointment. The job offered the refugees an escape from the insular boredom of life at a shared housing complex, he said, as well as a rare opportunity to interact with the local community. "We need to find pragmatic solutions to integrate the asylum seekers. Projects like assisting with luggage at the train station allow them social contact," said Sattler.
He also pointed out that refugees in Schwäbisch Gmünd already assist at several facilities for the disabled and elderly. Through such programs, said Sattler, "asylum seekers feel they are greatly valued and perceived as equal."
Yet Sattler is quick to concur that a maximum hourly rate of 1.05 is grossly insufficient. But for that to increase, Germany's asylum laws would have to be revised. Currently asylum seekers are paid 346 per month and are allowed to earn a maximum of 100 before deductions.
A Significant Increase
Last year, Germany's Constitutional Court ordered the government to increase benefits to asylum seekers, which had been stuck at a monthly rate of 224 since 1993. But the higher benefit rate remains even lower than the minimum subsistence level guaranteed to German welfare recipients -- and criticisms are growing that the conditions of asylum seekers in Germany are inadequate.
The topic is especially timely now, because the country is currently seeing an increase in the number of people seeking asylum. Some 100,000 are expected in 2013, according to the Federal Office for Migation and Refugees -- an increase of 50 percent over the previous year.