Asylum Seeker Influx: Far-Right Protests New Refugee Shelter
The number of people applying for asylum in Germany has increased significantly in recent months, leading to a housing shortage. In Berlin, a conflict with residents and the far right has erupted as a result.
When some 200 asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere moved in to a newly opened shelter in Berlin's Marzahn-Hellersdorf district this week, they weren't exactly greeted by a welcoming committee. About 30 right-wing extremists descended on the site on Tuesday to protest the facility, while another 600 counter-demonstrators were there to drown them out.
"Asylum seekers scram!" shouted the extremists, who showed up at the home on Carola-Neher Street at the behest of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). "Refugees are welcome here!" shouted the others. Meanwhile, 250 police were on hand to keep the two groups separated and 25 arrests were made. Some of the asylum seekers reportedly left the home immediately out of fear.
On Wednesday, the protests continued, with the right-wing populist group Pro-Berlin calling on its followers to demonstrate at several locations in the city.
The protests this week are just the latest clash in Berlin over the rapidly rising numbers of asylum seekers in Germany and the urgent need to find them shelter. This year has seen the most refugees seeking asylum in Germany since 1999, with the total for 2013 expected to top 100,000. According to the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees, 43,000 people sought asylum in Germany in the first six months of the year, an increase of 86.5 percent compared to the first half of 2012.
Running Out of Room
One result has been a desperate push across the country, and particularly in Berlin, to catch up with demand. In July, the authority responsible for housing refugees in Berlin reported that it had already run out of room for newcomers. Yet Berlin is responsible for taking in 5 percent of all asylum seekers coming to Germany. With 2,300 having shown up in the capital from January to June, that means that a further 2,700 can be expected during the second half of the year, according to the city-state's refugee office.
But Franz Allert, president of the Berlin city-state authority in charge of housing asylum seekers, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the problem goes beyond just that. Many refugees come to Berlin first, meaning that the true number of asylum seekers likely to turn up in the city during the course of 2013 is closer to 9,000. Even if many of them will be redistributed elsewhere, he said, "for us, the fact is, they are here in Berlin and need to be given shelter and care."
The resulting rush to rapidly expand capacity has not always been pretty, with most of the attention focusing on the home in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, an area of eastern Berlin that is dominated by concrete block housing and is far from the hip, tolerant nightclub culture many associate with the German capital. In early July, soon after it became known that an abandoned school there would be transformed into a shelter, an informational meeting, attended by an unexpected 800 people, was hijacked by right-wing extremists to applause from the crowd. The resulting headlines were hardly flattering to the neighborhood.
'We Have to Talk to Residents'
That incident has since emboldened the NPD to make their opposition to asylum seekers a main plank in their campaign platform ahead of the September elections. The party, to be sure, remains on the fringes of German politics. But Sebastian Schmidtke, head of the Berlin chapter of the NPD, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that his party is planning several more protests.
Allert admitted that the meeting, as it unfolded, was a mistake. For one, more than twice as many people came than were expected. For another, it was an open meeting instead of being invitation only. His office won't make the same mistake again, he said. While it is important to seek dialogue with local residents, he added, decisions are not reached at such meetings. "We don't carry out a survey and if the residents say 'yes' we can do it and if they say 'no' we can't," he said. "We try to take their concerns into account. But that can only be when we have time for it."
Others say that this kind of communication may be the only way to calm residents' concerns. "It is irresponsible to put people in such a heated situation when they have just fled to Germany from war and repression and experienced terrible things in their home countries," Georg Classen, of the Berlin Refugee Council, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Classen was present at the July 9 meeting and said he was afraid of being assaulted by the extremists there. "We have to talk to the local residents," he said.
And, he says, a comprehensive plan to ensure the refugees' safety must also be developed. After all, with the numbers of asylum seekers on the rise, the problem isn't likely to go away soon.
cgh -- with reporting by Anna-Lena Roth