Testing the Limits How Many Refugees Can Germany Handle?

More Germans than ever before are at ease with themselves and their asylum-seekers. But this year the country is expecting to receive around 400,000 new refugees, a figure that raises the painful question: Can Germany's new welcoming culture handle it? By SPIEGEL Staff


Anyone wondering about the state of the nation in Germany would be well advised to take a ride on the A33 highway and get off at the very last exit in Bielefeld, in northwestern Germany. The state of the nation is now encapsulated in a property in the city's Brackwede neighborhood. A few weeks ago, the name of the street would have been worth mentioning. But now it doesn't seem like a good idea.

The property is the site of a four-story addition with room for 200 asylum-seekers, complete with a dining room with floor-to-ceiling, soundproof windows and white-tiled bathrooms. Everything is state-of-the-art. The building even has the same kind of stand-up toilets made from stainless steel that are so often found in Mediterranean countries -- the kind your typical asylum-seeker from that region is accustomed to.

If ever a building epitomized Germany's architecture of goodwill or its welcoming culture for asylum-seekers, this is it. But it comes at a time when Germans' fears of that welcoming culture are also building. The new wing isn't finished yet. Completion is scheduled for Aug. 1. That's why for the past six weeks, security guards have been patrolling the construction site day and night, on the lookout for anyone trying to burn the place down before the first asylum-seekers can move in.

Jürgen Beier, the facility's manager, couldn't have imagined any of this a year ago, when the foundation was laid for the new addition to the existing refugee hostel. But today, in the summer of 2015, it's a different story with the number of people seeking asylum here rising sharply. It's not like anyone has sprayed graffiti on the walls or sent threatening letters. On the contrary, women from the local parish show up every day to play "Memory" and the beloved boardgame, "Sorry," with the refugee children.

But who knows what could happen now, what with arsonists active elsewhere in Germany and ordinary citizens filing lawsuits against new asylum hostels? Not to mention the good, old acquaintances of Beier's -- no, these people don't have a drop of xenophobic blood in them! -- who are suddenly asking him where all this is heading. Even the new facility, with its 200 beds, is far from enough, they say. What happens when more asylum-seekers turn up?

State of the Nation

This, it seems, is the state of the nation: a plot in Bielefeld where the most wonderful aspects of Germany are concentrated. There are people who are generous, who know they are fortunate -- at least more so than others. These are people who are determined to do everything right and to atone for Germany's sins, even 70 years later. They know that they owe something to their collective conscience, and that whenever they give something up, they also gain something in return. That something is the feeling of doing the right thing, the important thing.

But there is also the fear of being overwhelmed. It is the fear of people who are willing to give, but only to a point, only as long as it doesn't hurt them. People who are willing to share as long as they don't have to make sacrifices. And that, all generosity aside, is why so many people now feel that limits should be imposed on immigration. They may not know where these limits should lie, but they are convinced that they should exist.

So what is the state of the nation really? When it comes to refugees, it's a state of anxiety. In reality, it boils down to a question of how the growing influx of refugees and asylum-seekers adversely affects the Germans' relationship to these newcomers. The 400,000 asylum-seekers predicted to arrive this year will put Germany's new welcoming culture to the test. Can it endure? Can it survive?

Graphic: Asylum applications in Germany

Graphic: Asylum applications in Germany

Lawmakers, too, are realizing that things are changing. Last week, Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer announced that his state would open two intake camps, possibly tent camps, at the border for asylum-seekers from the Balkans, from which they could be deported as quickly as possible. Seehofer was the target of vicious attacks from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. SPD Deputy Chairman Ralf Stegner practically put Seehofer in the same boat as the arsonists who have been setting dwellings slated for asylum-seekers on fire in recent weeks, while Justice Minister Heiko Maas, another Social Democrat, was sharply critical of what he called "shrill language" from Bavaria. It is unclear whether Maas knew at the time that SPD-led states were also keen to put similar fast-track procedures in place, so as to relieve some of the pressure on their cities and towns.

As is so often the case in immigration policy, just because the rhetoric was loud did not mean it was substantive. There was a cascade of shoot-from-the-hip reactions that only masked the fact that there are no easy solutions, and that the level of anxiety in Berlin is just as high as elsewhere in Germany.

Strife in Brussels

The latest cacophony from Brussels only makes things worse. In June, the European Union proposed, for the first time, a quota system to distribute 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy among the other member states, so that most of them would not just end up continuing on to Germany, as they so often do. But the notion of voluntarily accepting refugees did not sit well with many member states. No thanks, said the Brits. Spain balked. The Baltic countries, too, admitted they had something else in mind when they decided to become part of the EU. In the end, the quota system came up 7,700 short of its goal to resettle 40,000 people, prompting an angry outburst from Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who said: "It's pathetic that the values we preach to the world, values like solidarity and compassion, are so readily trampled on here at home." In the end, do the benevolent end up the naifs, the fools?

It remains to be seen just how stable Germany's welcoming culture really is. Is it truly an intrinsic part of Germany's self-image as a cheerful and open-minded country, one Germans have been so enamored with since the 2006 soccer World Cup? Or will German warmth prove to have been nothing but a phase? It wouldn't be the first time that happened in the Republic's history with immigration. At times, Germany welcomed them with open arms; at others, it openly rejected them.

At the beginning, asylum seemed like a great idea. Half a million Germans, most of them Jews or otherwise politically persecuted, had fled from Hitler's executioners. They sought refuge in more than 80 countries until the Nazis' reign of terror came to an end. Post-war Germany, a young republic, made it a raison d'être to serve as a refuge. This was, of course, predicated on Germany being a place worth fleeing to.

"Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum," wrote the fathers of Germany's constitution, the Basic Law. All in all, a clear and well intended sentence. But even back then, things were more complicated. Politicians like Willy Brandt, who was exiled during the war, remained a traitor for many Germans even after hostilities ended. To them, asylum was something for guilty people. Not even their fellow Germans who had been expelled from Germany's former eastern territories were immediately welcome.

Some 13 million Germans fled westward, marking the first -- and by far the largest -- wave of migrants. It is one of Germany's greatest founding myths that this mass of homeless wanderers was received with unprecedented solidarity. The truth, however, is that they were long viewed as outsiders, forced to keep to themselves and insultingly referred to as "Polacks" and "riff-raff." In some rural areas, it would take decades for the displaced ethnic Germans to no longer be treated as "newcomers." Even then, the roots of xenophobia were the same as those that guest workers and asylum-seekers would later experience: a fear of strangers mixed with concerns about prosperity and loss of tradition. There was even a touch of envy. Expellees were, after all, eligible for government assistance, which they often used in the most visible of ways: to buy their own homes.

But that wasn't the only thing that became a model for prosperity. Established residents would also eventually learn to appreciate, if not love, the expellees -- an ethos that had less to do with solidarity than with practicality. It was simple: They were needed as laborers for Germany's economic miracle. The same ethos held true for the next wave of immigrants too, the guest workers, for whom the notion of usefulness was even more applicable.

Arrival of the Guest Workers

In the 1950s and '60s, millions of Turks, Spaniards and Italians came to Germany, where they were anything but popular. Racist epithets were quickly coined. The Italians became known as "spaghetti eaters;" the Turks, "Kümmeltürke," or "caraway Turks," after the popular Turkish spice. Natives and guest workers labored side-by-side but lived apart. For the Germans, what with their utilitarian view of immigration, it was convenient that the first generation of workers had little or no interest in integrating in the first place. Germans, too, had no interest in integrating them. The guest workers became the first "tolerated" class of society -- well before the notion of "tolerating" asylum-seekers even existed.

Everything was going more or less fine -- except when it wasn't -- until shortly after Germany decided to stop recruiting guest workers in 1973. By then there were 2.6 million of them -- and they wanted to stay and they wanted their families to join them. It became glaringly apparent at that point that the guest workers were viewed less as people than cheap labor. In the early 1990s, Germany didn't even bother to protect them from the crudeness of a country undergoing massive changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- changes that had upended many people's lives.

Graphic: Immigration in the Federal Republic of Germany

Graphic: Immigration in the Federal Republic of Germany

It was a time when the fear of being short-changed escalated into mass paranoia, prompting some to try and burn down civilization itself. Eventually things got deadly. There were deaths in places like Mölln and Solingen, and mob attacks at a home for asylum-seekers in Hoyerswerda and at an apartment block in Rostock-Lichtenhagen that housed Vietnamese migrants. Sure, it was the arsonists who were out for blood, but half the country reeked of gasoline. The stench penetrated deep into middle-class society, wafting up to the highest echelons of German politics.

For the first time, the number of annual asylum-seekers exceeded 200,000. In 1992, it even cracked the 400,000 mark. In a state address in 1991, then Chancellor Helmut Kohl repeated what he had been saying for years, namely that Germany was not a country of immigration. The tabloid newspaper Bild asked: "The waters are rising -- when will the ship sink?" Ironically, the paper had taken its cue from a SPIEGEL cover depicting Noah's ark being stormed by migrants. In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Friedhelm Farthmann, no less than the head of the state Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group, said that the best way to deal with rejected asylum-seekers was to "seize them by the collar and toss them out."

At the time, politicians gave in to public opinion and sealed off the country. In what was a dark hour for immigration policy in late 1992, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the SPD and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) reached a compromise on offering asylum, limiting the relevant article in the constitution so much that it was essentially all but eliminated. The law was amended so that asylum-seekers would only be allowed in if they had not fled to Germany through safe countries -- and because Germany was surrounded by safe countries, the influx of asylum-seekers virtually ground to a halt.

What Germany is in Danger of Losing

Remembering this part of Germany's history is crucial to understanding just how far the country has come since, what has been gained and what, in 2015, is in danger of being lost once again. In peril are changes that happened on a cultural and personal level.

Until 2005, when Germany enacted its wacky immigration law, this area of policy was reserved for ideologues. After that, however, when the number of asylum-seekers hovered around 30,000 for several years and immigration policy lost much of its relevance in politics, the pragmatists took over. First they took small steps, then they took bigger ones -- strides, the size of which most politicians, especially the conservatives, had never dreamed of. They included the first law that in 2007 established a right of residence for tolerated immigrants for whom deportation orders had been suspended indefinitely. Then, in 2011, well-integrated young people were also given the right of residence. In 2014, asylum-seekers were granted work permits after three months. A second regulation governing the right of residence is expected to be adopted soon. Perhaps even more important are Germany's efforts to integrate its immigrants through courses and language instruction.

Once again, lawmakers, especially those on the right, had capitulated in the face of reality. Except this time around, reality was completely different from 1993. The country has grown up and bid farewell to Kohl's childish dogma and its blatant denial of reality. And not just reality -- necessity too: Today many German companies are having trouble finding enough trainees and skilled workers. A decline in birth rates is likely to only exacerbate this trend. It would be a waste of resources to forego the knowledge, skills and prior education of immigrants who are reluctant to leave Germany.

Isn't this just a question of utility again? Yes, but in contrast to Germany's treatment of its guest workers in the economic miracle years, the country is now willing to invest and integrate. It wants to do more than just take, it wants to give, more than just money, clothing or a roof to sleep under. It is ready to offer its humanity and empathy, closeness and a sense of community, friendliness -- yes, even friendship.

Never before have Germans been so willing to help. Only once in the recent past -- when the first boat people arrived from the South China Sea in 1978 -- have the Germans displayed a similar degree of warmth as now. But back then they were facing 40,000 new arrivals, not 400,000.

Army of Volunteers

All across the country, people who have never volunteered for anything are asking what they can do to help, from collecting used clothing to providing rides and helping immigrants deal with bureaucracy. They are moved by the images from Syria and of the floating coffins in the Mediterranean. Perhaps they are also a little moved by their own ability to provide hope to people who have lost everything but their lives, and by the fact that they are now seen as benefactors by migrants who have had nothing but bad experiences.

Two such people are Sandy and Mandy, two sisters aged 27 and 23. They're from Hamburg's Jenfeld neighborhood and yes, those are their real names. Jenfeld is a hotbed for trouble, the kind of place where the Sandys and Mandys of the world would normally take care of themselves and little else. But ever since opponents of a planned hostel for migrants started agitating against the plan on the Internet, the sisters have been collecting clothing, toys and toiletries for the refugees.

And then there is 78-year-old Cäcilie T., one of 9,000 people living in Südlohn in Westphalia and whose new neighbors are from sub-Saharan Africa. In the past, the only thing black about Südlohn was its political leanings, a color that stood for the conservative CDU party. Nowadays Cäcilie T. helps her new neighbors find their bearings in town. Their children even call her "Grandma."

Touching stories like these only exist because Germans are now daring to open their hearts to immigrants. It is an openness that can destroy prejudices, for it allows Germans to see that foreigners, when experienced up close, are not nearly as foreign as they once seemed. This is also the reason that six immigrants agreed to pose for the front cover of this week's issue of SPIEGEL. They were Mohammed J., 27, who fled from the devastated Syrian town of Kobani; the Albanian immigrant Oltiana D., 26, who wants nothing more than a job and for her children to go to school; Mohammad I., 22, from Eritrea; Nawar Al E., 21, from Iraq; and Shersha S., 23, and Seher P., both from Afghanistan. They all want to show that no one in Germany has any reason to be afraid of them. They want to show that they are threatened, not threatening; persecuted, not criminal; and that they are poor, not greedy.

All of this is moving and overwhelming, but it still begs the question: What happens when individual destinies and individual people turn into a crowd, one that is so large that it overwhelms a country's resources? It is to the Germans' credit that a number as large as 400,000 has not triggered a total shift in public opinion. In 2013, when Dieter Wiefelspütz, long a domestic policy expert for the SPD in the German parliament, was asked to estimate when the country would reach its perceived tipping point, he guessed 100,000. He called it the magic number and said that things would become "difficult in Germany" after that. But that didn't happen, because Germany was better than that.

But 400,000 asylum applications! And if you count repeat applications, that number rises to 450,000. That's even more than were here in 1992, the year that Mölln and Solingen happened.

How Much is Too Much?

The mood is teetering in some places. The ugly Germans are on the prowl once again, at night, under cover of darkness, as they attempt to set fire to refugee hostels throughout Germany. In Freital, a town in the eastern state of Saxony, xenophobic sentiments are now being expressed in broad daylight. An isolated incident? Or a situation unique to Saxony, perhaps?

States' migrant intake centers are bursting at the seams. One facility in Friedland, in Lower Saxony, was designed to accommodate 700 people but now houses twice that many. In Bielefeld, 90 percent of occupants at one home only stay for one night, after that they're forced to move on to the next shelter to make room for new arrivals. The city of Hamburg is setting up massive tent camps. Throughout Germany, officials are desperately waiting for 400 new workers to be hired this year so that applications for asylum can be processed more quickly.

Xenophobia is a poison, not a mathematical function that can be depicted on a graph, where the number of asylum-seekers correlates with the level of rejection. It's a question of perception: Just how big is the pressure from immigration? The numbers certainly play a role here, but so do circumstances. What kinds of immigrants are arriving today? Are other EU countries letting Germany down? And, most of all, what do Germans have to give up in return for their generous assistance?

As long as it's nothing more than used clothing and old children's bikes, people are only too happy to make sacrifices. But what happens when property values threaten to drop because a shelter for asylum-seekers is being built next door, or when municipal budgets get so tight that spending cuts have to be made? There is a consensus within large swathes of the population, a consensus of limited compassion, according to which people are willing to give up something but not everything, and certainly not their comfortable lives in prosperous Germany. "We are willing to give up one or two percent," said SPD politician Wiefelspütz in 2013. Maybe it's as high as 5 percent, but it's certainly nowhere near 50. Opening the borders and letting everyone in? No majority is going to get behind that idea. Indeed, not even an appreciable minority would.

But if there's not enough to go around and help every last immigrant, the question then becomes: Who gets the short straw? This, in turn, evokes a dangerous, yet unavoidable, question of limits. It's dangerous because any answer is a matter of life and death. At the very least, it decides who continues to live a life of misery and who gets an opportunity -- and thus, hope. The question is unavoidable because it must be confronted, for it will ultimately determine whether the country views immigrants in the future as an enrichment or a burden.

Horst Seehofer answered this question in Bavarian. In June, about 30 percent of all asylum-seekers came from the western Balkans. At an acceptance rate of less than 1 percent, their chances of remaining in Germany are practically zero. Seehofer wants to concentrate them in two centers, resolve their cases within weeks and then quickly deport them. That such centers, possibly tent camps, would act as a deterrent to any potential future immigrants is probably intentional.

The Bavarian response was as populist as Seehofer. He also complained, once again, about "massive asylum abuse," probably to see whether everyone's reflexes were still working properly among conservative, Social Democratic and Green Party supporters. That his words may also resonate with some pyromaniacs is a chance he is obviously willing to take.

Different Types of Applicants

But he makes a point with which many agree: If a line has to be drawn, it should not be drawn with Syrians and Iraqis. It should be drawn with those who are not politically persecuted or fleeing from wars, those coming from countries seeking to join the EU. Asylum-seekers from the Balkans come to Germany because they have lost all hope of living a decent life at home. That is a fine reason to emigrate, but billions of people worldwide could have the same reason. The only reasonable solution would be an immigration law for qualified applicants, a law that the CDU has long opposed but is now apparently willing to support. Still, the dream of a better life does not qualify as grounds for asylum.

There lies the limit, the breaking point. Even Social Democrats agree. In mid-June, governors of SPD-dominated states attended a meeting at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees after meeting with the chancellor. There, they agreed to fast-track the processing of applications. To be sure, they are unwilling to separate the Balkan migrants from other immigrants, and the asylum application proceedings will not take place in bleak tent cities but in refugee reception centers. This is where the southeastern Europeans are to be housed, and from where they will also be sent back home.

From North Rhine-Westphalia to Rhineland-Palatinate, it appears that all the German states are onboard. They also intend to create deterrents, including ad campaigns in the Balkans that tell people with packed suitcases to unpack them because there is nothing for them in Germany.

"We have a group whose asylum applications are sure to be denied 99 percent of the time, and another group with a 99 percent chance of being granted asylum," Lower Saxony's Social Democratic Governor Stephan Weil told the Hannoversche Allgemeine newspaper. Otherwise known for his welcoming stance toward immigrants, he added: "If both groups have to wait two years for a decision, there is something fundamentally wrong with the system."

"We have to be careful not to jeopardize the entire welcoming culture that we have built," warns Manfred Schmidt, head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Schmidt also isn't someone with a reputation for being a hardliner, but the way he sees it, there are certain decisions that champions of democracy need to make before a welcoming culture turns into a good-riddance culture.


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Munster 07/31/2015
1. Refugee saturation
One has to wonder how extensively the forbearance of the German people can be tested over immigration and virtually every other major international issue, before the world hears a loud snapping sound - the sound of German will and patience being overwhelmed. One thing is certain - the Germans can't seem to prevail in the public relations arena as in every instance where public outrage and dissonance would and should be expected, the history of 1933 - 1945 is improvidently introduced to shame them into submission. We have seen it recently with Greece where despite several decades of accepting German/ECB loans, Tsipras desperately used the bargaining lever of past appropriations from the Greek National Bank by occupying German forces during WWII (appropriations never raised by previous Greek officials who readily accepted loan conditions) to reduce the Greek debt. We see it repeatedly in instances in which Germans collectively denounce the insinuation of Islam into German society, whether protestations against the Cologne mosque such as pro-Koln, the PEGIDA marches in Dresden, the attack on refugee centers from primarily Islamic nations. People expressing their dissonance with the Merkl government's unrestrained immigration/asylum policies are labeled NAZIs, far-right extremists, etc. It has become clear that the guilt and shame imposed on Germany for the events of WWII has eviscerated their right to protest any assault on their culture, their customs, their right to say "No" to external influences - and this will deepen rather than quiet the social contradictions that are unbuckling German society at every level.
desmond.morgan 07/31/2015
2. Immigrants
a strong Germany and a weak Europe is perhaps not the correct enviroment to accept 400,000 extra immegrants. Grow Europe like Germany and we can take 4,000,000
nsmith 07/31/2015
If "More Germans than ever before are at ease with themselves and their asylum-seekers"--Why are so many Asylums going up in flames?
ramgopal 07/31/2015
4. Asylum seeker Vs Immigrant
The authors keeps interchanging the terms immigrants and asylum seekers. Are asylum seekers the kind of immigrants Germany wants? Germans should get over their guilt for horrible things that happened over 70 years ago. The Germans of today are some of the nicest and friendliest people you will meet. If Germany wants immigrants, it should develop a point system like in Australia and Canada, and PROACTIVELY choose what kind of people come and settle in the country. It shouldn't sit back and passively accept the ones who illegally come in. If the German government puts an ad in a newspaper in India, or China or any other developing country in the world saying that we want a 10,000 immigrants this year, you will get millions of applications from brilliantly qualified people. People who will not only be an asset to the German economy, but also people who will actually appreciate the modern values and culture that they will find in Germany. The article mentions 'The law was amended so that asylum-seekers would only be allowed in if they had not fled to Germany through safe countries'. That's a good amendment, it should be reintroduced. People who travel through numerous safe-countries like Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, and then apply for asylum in prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden, are not purely seeking asylum. They are seeking better economic opportunities. So, the ones who have passed through safe-countries should be treated as economic migrants. Since they did not arrive in the country on a valid visa or work/residence permit, they are illegal economic migrants. And they should be treated as such. Illegal migrants should not be housed, fed and looked after by the government. They should be sent back - either to their own country or the first safe country that they passed through. If Germans want to help people who are fleeing war, it is better to provide help to the people who took asylum in the first safe area/country that they found. The asylum seekers who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to travel illegally to Germany, are actually stealing the compassion and generosity of the German people. It probably costs the German state 10-15 thousand dollars a year to house, feed and look after an asylum seeker in Germany. That much money could support 20-25 refugees in the refugee camps around the war torn areas. Giving asylum to people, who have paid smugglers thousands of dollars and who are actually stealing generosity and 'aid' from 20-25 of their fellow countrymen, is misdirected compassion. How bizarre is it that a person will pay a smuggler thousands of dollar, walk into Germany, apply for asylum and then be looked after by the German state. If Germans want to help people who are fleeing war, they should donate to agencies that work in refugee camps near the war regions. If they want immigrants, they should proactively select and choose people who will be an asset to the economy, and who will appreciate the modern values and culture in Germany. In the mean time you should readopt the old amendment - 'asylum-seekers would ONLY be allowed in if they had NOT fled to Germany through safe countries'.
Inglenda2 07/31/2015
5. The people are good, but the government incompetent!
A German welcoming culture is existent and is more than just an intrinsic part of Germany's self-image as a cheerful and open-minded country. It can however turn sour the more it is abused. This is especially the case, when those entering the country illegally, have been in no danger in the country where they were formerly resident. However, one cannot give the immigrants the blame for German failed policies. These are the responsibility of the German government and in many cases not only contradict the written Constitution, but also can be seen to betray and disadvantage the German population as well as foreign citizens who have legally taken up residence in the country. Just one example, the pocket-money, now being provided for registered newcomers, is higher, than the cash which remains for most retired women, after they have paid their normal household expenses. Such inequality is bound to lead to discontentment.
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