Photo Gallery: Feeling the Strain


'We're Under Water' Germany Shows Signs of Strain from Mass of Refugees

The unceasing influx of refugees is creating tremendous uncertainty in Germany. Many towns and cities are calling for help and the government appears to be rudderless. Pressure is mounting for Chancellor Angela Merkel to act. By SPIEGEL Staff

The road to the reception camp in Hesepe has become something of a refugees' avenue. Small groups of young men wander along the sidewalk. A family from Syria schleps a clutch of shopping bags towards the gate. A Sudanese man snakes along the road on his bicycle. Most people don't speak a word of German, just a little fragmentary English, but when they see locals, they offer a friendly wave and call out, "Hello!"

The main road "is like a pedestrian shopping zone," says one resident, "except without the stores." Red-brick houses with pretty gardens line both sides of the street, and Kathrin and Ralf Meyer are standing outside theirs. "It's gotten a bit too much for us," says the 31-year-old mother of three. "Too much noise, too many refugees, too much garbage."

Now the Meyers are planning to move out in November. They're sick of seeing asylum-seekers sit on their garden wall or rummage through their garbage cans for anything they can use. Though "you do feel sorry for them," says Ralf, who's handed out some clothes that his children have grown out of. "But there are just too many of them here now."

Hesepe, a village of 2,500 that comprises one district of the small town of Bramsche in the state of Lower Saxony, is now hosting some 4,000 asylum-seekers, making it a symbol of Germany's refugee crisis. Locals are still showing a great willingness to help, but the sheer number of refugees is testing them. The German states have reported some 409,000 new arrivals between Sept. 5 and Oct. 15 -- more than ever before in a comparable time period -- though it remains unclear how many of those include people who have been registered twice.

Thousands Still Sleeping in Tents

Six weeks after Chancellor Angela Merkel's historic decision to open Germany's borders, there is a shortage of basic supplies in many places in this prosperous nation. Cots, portable housing containers and chemical toilets are largely sold out. There is a shortage of German teachers, social workers and administrative judges. Authorities in many towns are worried about the approaching winter, because thousands of asylum-seekers are still sleeping in tents.

But what Germany lacks more than anything is a plan to make Merkel's two most-pronounced statements on the crisis -- "We can do it" and "We cannot close our borders" -- fit together. In the second month of what has been dubbed the country's brand new "Welcoming Culture," it has become clear to many that Germany will only be able to cope if the number of refugees drops.

But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Tens of thousands of people are making their way to Germany along the so-called Balkan route; at the same time, Merkel's efforts to reduce the influx through diplomacy and tougher regulations remain just that. The European Union has agreed to better secure its external borders, but none of Germany's neighboring states are willing to take any significant number of refugees off her hands. And Merkel's forceful announcement that she would send asylum-seekers from Kosovo and Albania home more quickly is being hindered by a regulation that says refugees can avoid the authorities' grasp simply by producing a medical certificate.

Merkel's last hope is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president. The chancellor is visiting Ankara this weekend, bringing with her a number of gifts that Europe's leaders had discussed in their summit in Brussels. The plan is to persuade Erdogan to strengthen the border in the Aegean Sea that "the strong nation of Germany" (as Merkel put it) is unable to.

Merkel Increasingly Isolated

The griping over Merkel's policies has grown louder within her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The meetings of the party's parliamentary group, which for many years radiated the boredom of an English gentleman's club, now resemble tribunals against the chancellor. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the strong man in Merkel's cabinet, also expressed his own dissatisfaction, in distant Peru, by cracking jokes about border controls in the former East Germany.

Merkel is looking increasingly isolated. Government sources say she has made refugee policy her personal concern, and now she is being left to deal with it on her own. Last week, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière confided in his Luxembourg counterpart, telling him that Merkel did not have a plan, only "cold feet."

Ralph Tiesler has seen all kinds of crisis scenarios in his career as a public official. This fall, his authority was supposed to simulate the effects of a major storm tide on the North Sea coast, but the crisis management exercise had to be cancelled. Instead, Tiesler, deputy head of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK), had to get to grips with a real emergency situation: Tiesler is the man who distributes the refugees across Germany, the lord of the buses and trains.

In a situation room on a military complex near Munich's Olympic Stadium, he and his 30 colleagues have a large monitor where they can see which refugee homes currently still have space. Green means there are vacancies, red means full.

Last week, his team had to pull extra shifts, after the number of new arrivals increased again on Monday night. Between 8,000 and 10,000 refugees have been arriving recently -- per day.

Graphic: New Refugees Arriving in Germany

Graphic: New Refugees Arriving in Germany


Tiesler's job is to organize a roof over the refugees' heads on their first night -- and then to get them on to special trains and buses as quickly as possible, to be relocated. There are five major routes distributing the asylum-seekers across Germany's states. The "West" route leads to North Rhine-Westphalia, the "Southwest" route to Baden-Württemberg and its neighboring states.

The distribution lists are political hot potatoes. The various states fastidiously make sure they aren't allocated more refugees than has been set down by the so-called "Königstein Key," the agreement between the federal government and the states that stipulates how much each state contributes to national programs: Bavaria, 15.3 percent, Hamburg, 2.5 percent, Hesse, 7.3 percent. At the moment, the quotas are only roughly correct -- according to current calculations, Hamburg has taken in 4,500 too many refugees, while the eastern states (Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt) have together accepted almost 10,000 too few. The wealthy state of Baden-Württemberg is around 7,800 short of its quota, while Bavaria is around 16,000 over. "A 100-percent fair distribution isn't possible at the moment," says Tiesler.

Thousands of Unregistered Refugees

The argument is escalating because tens of thousands of asylum-seekers haven't even been registered yet -- no one actually knows the exact number of refugees in the country. On top of that, a lot of refugees don't want to be distributed around the country -- they want to decide for themselves where they live. They want to go to where they already have relatives and friends, to cities they've read about on Facebook, or on to Scandinavia. Last week, a train from Bavaria carrying 450 refugees arrived in the town of Uelzen in Lower Saxony. Red Cross workers greeted them with tea and warm blankets. They were due to board buses heading on to the local villages of Fallingbostel and Wittmund, but around 300 refused -- they wanted to continue their travel on their own -- by train, taxi, on foot, whatever. Now Bundeswehr soldiers have been stationed in Uelzen to gently guide refugees to the buses. But no one can be forced.

Meanwhile the weather is giving Tiesler a lot to worry about. Temperatures have fallen, the first frosts have appeared, in some places snow. Authorities are determined not to allow anyone to sleep in the wet and cold in the open air. "We have to do everything we can to prevent homelessness, and we have to organize the distribution accordingly," he says.

It was one of the instructions that local councils and mayors fear the most. Michael Cyriax learned a week ago that his municipality had only a few days to prepare for up to 1,000 refugees. The "assignment order" from the Hesse state Interior Ministry instructed him to convert three halls in the local Main-Taunus district into emergency refugee shelters. He had 77 hours.

County Councilor Cyriax called in the local disaster relief workers. The to-do list was long: The halls had to be closed, events cancelled, protective floor covers laid down, camp beds set up, food and medical aid organized. All over the course of a weekend. After the meeting, Cyriax declared a "disaster situation" -- the first in the Main-Taunus district since 1945.

A Tense Mood

The arrival of so many refugees was not a "disaster in the generally accepted sense," Cyriax admitted afterwards, but by issuing the declaration, local authorities can give instructions more quickly and even temporarily overrule obstructive fire safety regulations.

The mood in the local municipalities is tense. More and more trains with refugees are arriving from southern Germany. In some states, up to a third of refugees are still living in tents, with winter fast approaching.

Some mayors have cancelled the contracts of tenants in publicly owned apartments in order to house refugees. They say that apartments for refugees can only be found for exorbitant prices on the open market. Landlords are exploiting the situation, says Rainer Vidal, mayor of the town of Nieheim in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Local politicians are finding it difficult to find accommodations for refugees. Christel Fleischmann, head of the buildings department in the Dieburg district of Darmstadt, says he has been offered mildewed apartments and attic rooms only accessible by ladder.

It's Monday morning in the administrative court in the northern city of Cottbus. Refugees rush towards the application center on the ground floor, a small room at the end of the hall. Pre-printed forms have been laid out: applications for the Federal Republic of Germany "to grant asylum."

Two stories above this, in Room 320, Gregor Nocon has a heap of files on his desk. Right on top, between red covers, are the emergency appeals.

'The Pile Keeps Growing'

The chief justice compares his situation to that of an emergency medic. "When I come to work I have to check what needs to be done right away, and what can wait," says Nocon. At the moment he works almost exclusively on asylum cases. He recently had to deal with the case of a possibly illegal weekend home. "That was almost like a holiday," he says.

Nocon takes a chart from the printer. It shows that in September 2013 the small Cottbus court dealt with 18 asylum cases -- this September it was 138. "The pile keeps growing," says Nocon.

Almost all of Germany's administrative courts are having similar experiences -- the number of asylum cases is pushing the country's 1,800 administrative judges to the limits of their capacity. Around 40 percent of asylum-seekers appeal against their decisions, and the courts are required to reassess every single case.

A lot of states have decided to hire additional new judges, but those in legal circles say that won't be enough. "We need 600 additional judges across Germany to cope with all the asylum applications," estimates Robert Seegmüller, chairman of the German association of administrative judges.

And the wave of cases hasn't even reached its peak. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has yet to decide on over 300,000 asylum applications. Experts estimate that this stack could grow by another half million by the end of the year.

Graphic: Average Processing Times for Asylum Applications

Graphic: Average Processing Times for Asylum Applications


Frank-Jürgen Weise, head of the Federal Employment Agency, is supposed to streamline the refugee office to deal with the pile-up of applications. But new employees have to be trained, which, in the case of asylum deciders, the most urgently needed, takes months. In a recent report, one migration specialist wrote, "Despite repeated notifications, we cannot yet predict when the BAMF will be able to keep the pile from growing, never mind work it down."

'Real Miracles Make Little Noise'

On Wednesday morning at 11, all the classrooms in the Johanna Wittum School are occupied. Only the art room in the basement is still free. Fifteen students are sitting at high tables designed for drawing. They make the teenagers look more child-like -- vulnerable, despite the adventurous, footballer-inspired haircuts that some of the boys are sporting. On the wall hangs an epigram by the French poet and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Real miracles make little noise."

Whether a miracle occurs in the art room of this technical college in the southwestern town of Pforzheim will only become clear in the coming years -- once these young refugees, now between 14 and 20 years old, have learned German, found a job and been integrated into their host country. Or haven't.

At the moment these four girls and 11 boys are still right at the start of their journey. They're attending a so-called "VABO" class, an acronym that stands for "pre-qualification year work and profession, no German knowledge." They have several hours of German lessons every day, in order to eventually graduate from a regular school or a job training course.

There are two of these classes in the Johanna Wittum School, 20 in the Pforzheim area, around 300 in the whole state of Baden-Württemberg, and several thousand across Germany.

The children usually come to these schools once they've left the initial reception centers. There are no central bodies that register and distribute students -- the young migrants just turn up one day outside the school gates, having been registered at the school by a social worker or a volunteer helper.

Their previous education is wildly varied. Some have attended high school before, or received some other kind of education. Others can barely read or write. Only a few fit the ideal of the child of a Syrian university graduate, with knowledge of English. The trainee teacher Ouvilia al Kuti has to start from scratch: She sticks signs up on the board: "My name is al Kuti." "I come from Germany." "I speak German." One at a time the students approach the board and repeat the sentences. "My name is Elizabeta. I come from Albania. I speak Albanian."

And so it continues: Eva and Andrea from Albania, Lona and Sonia from Afghanistan, Mohamed from Syria, Burhan from Macedonia, Salim, Dyar, Mahmood, Anas and Havel from Iraq. When they get to Anas, the boys smirk, and call out "Ananas," the German word for pineapple. Then the two-hour class is over.

Sobering Statistics

In a few years' time, Lona and Burhan will be expected to earn their own living and strengthen the German economy as skilled workers. But as a recent study by the federal government's Institute for Employment Research (IAB) showed, the journey from refugee to skilled worker is a long one. Of the refugees aged between 15 and 64 surveyed, only 8 percent made it into a job within a year of arrival, while 50 percent made it within five years. After 15 years, the percentage rose to 70 percent -- almost at the level of the average labor force participation rate.

Margarete Schaefer, director of the Johanna Wittum School, knows that integration is a generational challenge: "I can't send young refugees to the job center after one or two years," she says.

Schaefer says that her school is currently massively over-capacity, like many vocational schools across the country. Usually it's those schools that normally don't have an easy clientele anyway that end up having to take in refugees -- the university-prep high schools are left out.

The Standing Conference, the official body of the education ministers of the 16 German states, is expecting some 325,000 additional students across the country through the current refugee influx alone. It says it will need some 20,000 additional teachers.

Germany Is Failing Refugee Minors

Mohammed, 16 years and nine months old, arrived in Nuremberg on Sept. 17 on a train from Vienna as an unaccompanied minor. His family in Damascus sent him on his way. Mohammed speaks Arabic, English and two other languages and was part of an advanced group in junior karate. In Nuremberg, he heads to the police station to fill out a form. Because he claims to be 16, the officers call up the youth welfare office.

At that moment, the entire support of Germany's youth aid system is supposed to be set in motion for the teenager. Since the beginning of 2014, the standards for youth aid also apply to unaccompanied minor refugees, in Bavaria too.

In practice, that means a 12-week processing period during which the state determines the level of care needed by newcomers, their origin, the state of their health and the level of education attained. In addition, they receive a bed in a single or double room in a youth home or a group home; a custodian at the local youth welfare office, with whom they can speak at length once a month; German courses and schooling; and an assistance plan, which can help young people become self-sufficient by the time they reach the legal adult age of 18. The entire package is paid for with a per capita sum paid to the manager of the facility where the minor is being sheltered.

But right now, all spaces are occupied and the list of benefits is purely theoretical for Mohammed. He has a mattress in an emergency shelter. Thus far, he has not been assigned a custodian and only gets German language training on Sundays from a volunteer. He doesn't receive schooling, because there's no room, and he is still on a waiting list to get processed. He might be subject to a fast-track processing period in a few weeks or months. And no assistance plan has been developed for him, though an aid worker has tried to put him on the karate team of a local sports club.

Even if the chancellor remains convinced that Germany can handle the influx of refugees, when it comes to unaccompanied minors, Germany is failing in many areas. And money isn't even the problem. There are no buildings that satisfy the criteria established by the youth welfare office. There are insufficient personnel with backgrounds in education because too few students have pursued degrees in the subjects needed.

'We're Under Water'

Mohammed sleeps on a mattress in the auditorium of a home for children and youth located not far from the Nuremberg city center. The facility is operated by the Rumelsberger Diakonie, the local chapter of Germany's nationwide Protestant charity operation. Werner Pfingstgraef, who is responsible for unaccompanied minors at the facility, says: "If I compare the present situation with the floods  (of 2013), then you have to say, we're under water." Every one of his employees, he says, is running "like they were on a hamster wheel."

Last year, the Bavarian Social Affairs Ministry forecast that 500 to 600 unaccompanied minors would arrive. But 3,400 came, says Pfingstgraef. He estimates that some 14,000 are currently in Bavaria. Still, despite the difficulties of the present situation, he warns against lowering standards in response. "If we aren't successful in getting these young people a school certificate and stabilizing them, we will pay for it bitterly one day."

It's everywhere, this anger with Merkel -- in the conference hall in Schkeuditz on Wednesday evening, for example. It's the kind of regional conference that Merkel likes to set up so as to calm ruffled party feathers. But this time, it is more than just ruffled feathers. This time, it is an open revolt.

It's not just the party rank and file who join the debate, but also regional officials, mayors and former state parliamentarians. They say that Merkel opened the gates to the refugees and that she should finally take steps to limit the inflow. One says: "In my opinion, you have failed."

Time Is Not on Merkel's Side

The participants at the conference in Schkeuditz just outside Leipzig in the eastern state of Saxony are split, just like German conservatives as a whole. There are the speakers, many of whom rant against Merkel, but the chancellor is also applauded when she defends her policies. "My service to Germany is that I try to give honest answers," she says. Part of being honest, she continues, is to say that there are no quick answers. But that is exactly her problem. Time is not on her side.

In the conservative caucus in the federal parliament in Berlin, more and more lawmakers are joining the ranks of Merkel's detractors, a number that is in lockstep with the rising numbers of refugees. "By now, many more than half of the lawmakers would like to see a different policy," says one parliamentarian who supports the chancellor.

Merkel's critics also know that there are no simple solutions. But that's not their focus. They want to send a "message to the global public" that even a rich county like Germany can't accept an unlimited number of people, as Governor Horst Seehofer, who is the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, puts it.

But the message is also intended for domestic consumption. Many conservative lawmakers would like to see the reintroduction of border controls and want people who have no chance of receiving asylum to be blocked from entering Germany at the border. They want the state to demonstrate that it hasn't completely lost control of who enters the country.

Merkel believes that this is the wrong approach. In the meeting with parliamentary conservatives, she repeated her conviction that securing borders wouldn't work on a national level. Only on the European level. CDU domestic policy specialist Armin Schuster contradicted the chancellor. "I am a federal police officer," he began. "Ms. Chancellor, have faith. The federal police force can handle it."

Is End Near for Merkel?

Others had the same message. Clemens Binninger, a member of parliament from the state of Baden-Württemberg, said: "If you are of the opinion that we can't control and reject, then I am of a different opinion." Hans-Peter Uhl, a conservative from Bavaria, predicted the end of Merkel's political career if she doesn't change her approach: "When the people realize that the government cannot or will not protect them, then the people will elect a different government."

Merkel's confidants in the Chancellery had thought that they had the conflict at least temporarily under control. On Monday morning, Merkel spoke with CSU head Horst Seehofer on the phone and told him that she too would begin openly supporting the idea of creating so-called "transit zones," similar to immigration facilities found at international airports along Germany's borders. The zones would be for refugees who are ineligible for refugee status and would enable them to be sent back home immediately. CSU lawmakers, with the support of German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, had been demanding the establishment of such zones for the previous two weeks.

Merkel and conservative floor leader Volker Kauder had previously rejected the idea because they didn't believe such zones were practicable. That hasn't changed, but Merkel wanted to provide an outlet for the widespread dissatisfaction with her policies.

Quickly, though, she was forced to realize that her junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), wasn't prepared to go along with her. On Wednesday, following the cabinet meeting at the Chancellery, Merkel, Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier and de Maizière met with SPD cabinet members Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas. Gabriel made clear: "That won't be done with the SPD." Maas said that "detainment centers on the border" are not acceptable. The meeting made it clear that Merkel's effort to make peace with the CSU would fail.

Nobody in the conservative leadership knows how things might develop from here. The dominant feeling is one of helplessness. The CDU leadership has presented itself as being solidly behind the chancellor. But criticism is growing, even if it has thus far been kept largely under wraps. Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier has praised German President Joachim Gauck, who said: "Our heart is broad, but our possibilities are finite." Interior Minister de Maiziére told conservative domestic policy experts at a Wednesday evening meeting that he planned to check if turning back refugees at the border was legally possible. Floor leader Kauder has indicated that he wouldn't stand in the way if de Maiziére publicly supported such border controls.

Germany To Take A Financial Hit

Even Finance Minister Schäuble, who until recently publicly supported Merkel's policies, this week proposed a reduction of welfare benefits for people living in Germany who have been granted asylum status but aren't working. It's precisely those kinds of proposals that haven't been coordinated that irritate officials in Merkel's Chancellery. At the same time, they signal to Merkel that her office needs to act.

It's in Schäuble's interest for the number of refugees to drop. Although Germany is running a budget surplus this year, the country may have to start borrowing again as soon as next year as a result of the refugee crisis, after having balanced its budget in 2014 and 2015. Schäuble will have a buffer of just under €9 billion in 2016, but that already appears to be insufficient, even under the current circumstances. Staff experts in the Finance Ministry are already calculating the costs of managing the refugees at significantly more than €10 billion -- and those are just the costs to the federal government.

They also believe a construction program for apartments will be inevitable in order to be able to provide housing for the immigrants. In addition, the states will require far more than the €3 billion in aid they has been pledged by the federal government. Internal government estimates suggest that, if they can successfully speed up the processing of asylum applications, the number of recognized refugees will rise from just under 10,000 a month now to six times that figure. The result being that many of these new arrivals will also qualify to draw unemployment benefits -- a bill that will have to be footed by the government. In addition, it is also expected that Germany will grant several hundred million euros to Turkey in order to help the country provide for the massive number of refugees who have sought refuge there.

Mounting Pressure

Merkel knows that the pressure will continue to mount. Even leaders of the SPD sense that aligning themselves too closely with Merkel's policies could prove disastrous. Earlier this week, Lutz Trümper, the mayor of Magdeburg, the capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, withdrew his membership in the Social Democrats, a sign of problems already brewing within the party. SPD leaders are warning against a state of "panic." Still, though, "the numbers (of immigrants) has to drop," one says.

At this point, no one in the SPD is calling for Germany's borders to be closed. But concerns are indeed growing within the party. "We won't be able to continue for another four weeks," says Axel Schäfer, the deputy head of the SPD's parliamentary group. "We have to maintain the ability to act as a nation."

In the state of Lower Saxony, Interior Minister Boris Pistorius has a new plan. He's proposing that all refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants who want to enter Germany be filtered through 10 to 12 special entry centers. Under the proposal, applications for asylum could only be submitted at those centers. Anyone trying to circumvent them would be entering the country illegally.

Under Pistorius' plan, decisions would have to be made within days to differentiate between those who actually have a chance of getting granted asylum or refugee status, those who come from a safe country of origin and those who are just arriving to look for work.

Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz and federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas are also expected to develop further proposals for the SPD. Nothing has been agreed yet, but provisions are expected that will make it easier to deport people with criminal records or who have alleged to have lost their passports.

Above all, members of the SPD will be watching very closely in the weeks ahead to see if and how quickly Angela Merkel shifts her position. Within her own party, the Christian Democrats, many consider it a given that she will have to change her policy. "The next party caucus is in three weeks," says CSU domestic policy expert Uhl. "If the government hasn't made something happen by then, then the caucus will have to act."

By Matthias Bartsch, Jan Friedmann, Hubert Gude, Horand Knaup, Ralf Neukirch, Conny Neumann, René Pfister, Christian Reiermann, Michael Sauga, Christoph Schult and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt