Refugee as­sim­i­la­tion makes small progress

Ger­mans as di­vided as ever over ‘open door’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

BERLIN | He gets a small stipend from the gov­ern­ment, plenty of food, a clean bed and ac­cess to classes where he is work­ing hard to learn Ger­man.

While Ali, a 30-year-old Syr­ian refugee, misses his fam­ily and wor­ries a lot about the hor­ror of war back home, he knows he is one of the lucky ones.

“If things work out,” he said, “I can stay here for­ever.”

But it’s not en­tirely clear if things will work out. In fact, Ali is in limbo. De­spite hav­ing ar­rived in Ger­many al­most two years ago, he is still liv­ing in what was sup­posed to be a tem­po­rary gov­ern­mentspon­sored refugee camp — a sprawl­ing com­plex of cu­bi­cle-like rooms in­side the huge ter­mi­nal at the for­mer Berlin air­port known as Tem­pel­hof.

Ali’s case may be as a good a mea­sure as any of Ger­many’s on­go­ing strug­gle to in­te­grate an un­prece­dented in­flux of asy­lum seek­ers since 2015, when Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel won praise from hu­man rights groups by an­nounc­ing that the na­tion would al­low in more than 1 mil­lion refugees from Syria and other mainly Mid­dle Eastern war zones.

Ms. Merkel’s move was a stark con­trast to the

ap­proach by the United States, where Pres­i­dent Obama strug­gled for ap­proval to al­low in just 10,000 Syr­i­ans be­fore leav­ing of­fice early this year, and Pres­i­dent Trump has moved to block all refugees tem­po­rar­ily, cut back sharply on the num­ber to be let in and ban visas for peo­ple from sev­eral cor­ners of the Mus­lim world.

But the pol­i­tics around Ms. Merkel’s “open door” pol­icy to al­low in more refugees than any other na­tion in the Euro­pean Union have been no less in­tense. The chan­cel­lor’s ap­proval rat­ings plunged last year as crit­ics seized on a se­ries of ter­ror­ist at­tacks by asy­lum seek­ers as ev­i­dence of the pol­icy’s dis­as­trous ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

“If I was able to, I would turn back time by many, many years so that I could have pre­pared the whole gov­ern­ment and the au­thor­i­ties for the sit­u­a­tion, which hit us out of the blue in the late sum­mer of 2015,” she said af­ter a se­ries of elec­toral set­backs for her rul­ing Chris­tian Demo­cratic Party late last year.

While her rat­ings have since im­proved — she is the front-run­ner for a fourth term ahead of next month’s elec­tions in Ger­many — Ms. Merkel has been pressed to tighten Ger­many’s asy­lum rules. Mean­while, the chal­lenge of in­te­grat­ing the refugees — more than half of whom are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — con­tin­ues to weigh on the na­tion of roughly 83 mil­lion peo­ple.

The gov­ern­ment has be­gun deny­ing asy­lum and de­port­ing cer­tain groups of refugees in re­cent months, only to face crit­i­cism from rights ad­vo­cates for send­ing back far more Afghans than Syr­i­ans un­der an ar­gu­ment that the over­all se­cu­rity in Afghanistan has im­proved enough for the refugees to go back home.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of asy­lum seek­ers, mean­while, have moved swiftly through Tem­pel­hof and other refugee cen­ters across Ger­many. But many more are still com­ing and, like Ali, thou­sands are liv­ing in a state of deep un­cer­tainty in the tem­po­rary fa­cil­i­ties.

A spokes­woman at Tem­pel­hof said Berlin just does not have enough per­ma­nent hous­ing avail­able for all asy­lum seek­ers. But some here say the real prob­lem is sub­tle and be­hind-the-scenes dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“It can be very dif­fi­cult to find hous­ing,” said Hous­sam Aldeen, who runs the Salam Cul­ture & Sports Club, a non­profit in Berlin that of­fers le­gal and other in­te­gra­tion guid­ance to refugees.

“There is racism,” Mr. Aldeen, a 38-year-old asy­lum re­cip­i­ent from Syria, told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an in­ter­view. Pri­vate real es­tate com­pa­nies in Berlin — some of whom own as many as 60 build­ings — re­ject Arab and Mus­lim ap­pli­cants de­spite tak­ing sub­si­dies from the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide low-in­come apart­ments, he said.

But Mr. Aldeen also said the hous­ing prob­lem is not so sig­nif­i­cant in light of Ger­many’s over­all progress in con­fronting one of the most chaotic refugee sit­u­a­tions in his­tory.

“In 2015, it was a big mess. There were 6,000 refugees ar­riv­ing ev­ery day,” he said. “When you have a house with five rooms and you get 100 peo­ple, you get a mess. It’s hard to or­ga­nize it. You’re not pre­pared, es­pe­cially when other coun­tries run away from their re­spon­si­bil­ity to hold refugees, in­clud­ing the United States and the U.K.

“Ger­many sur­prised all the world by tak­ing in this huge num­ber,” Mr. Aldeen added. “No coun­try could take in this many peo­ple with­out some mis­takes, but the gov­ern­ment has tried to learn from its mis­takes, and now that the ini­tial cri­sis of refugees is over, it’s got­ten much bet­ter.”

The Is­lamic State fac­tor

But an in­ter­nal se­cu­rity cri­sis is slowly burn­ing, and de­bate is in­ten­si­fy­ing over the ex­tent to which it can be tied to the refugee surge.

Data from Ger­many’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency re­vealed an uptick in vi­o­lence by neo-Nazi and other far-right anti-im­mi­grant groups and by a surge in left-wing ex­trem­ism — as well as ris­ing num­bers of ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Is­lamist “Salafists” liv­ing in the na­tion.

A re­port by the agency, known as the BfV, said 1,600 vi­o­lent in­ci­dents by far-right groups were recorded in 2016, com­pared with 1,408 a year ear­lier. It said some 8,500 “vi­o­lence-ori­en­tated” left­ists are op­er­at­ing in Ger­many.

At the same time, the agency said the na­tion is now home to some 10,100 ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims, up from 8,350 in 2015. While it’s un­clear how the gov­ern­ment de­ter­mined the size of the Salafist pop­u­la­tion, of­fi­cials claimed to be mon­i­tor­ing some 680 Is­lamists and warned that the chance of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist in­ci­dents in the na­tion is high.

The warn­ing was is­sued against a back­drop of sev­eral ter­ror­ist at­tacks in­volv­ing asy­lum seek­ers and pos­si­ble links to the Is­lamic State.

The most prom­i­nent was in De­cem­ber, when a 23-year-old Tu­nisian asy­lum seeker plowed a stolen semi­trac­tor-trailer into the Christ­mas mar­ket out­side Berlin’s his­toric Kaiser Wil­helm Me­mo­rial Church. Twelve peo­ple died and 56 oth­ers were in­jured, and the at­tacker was killed four days later in a shootout with po­lice in Mi­lan, Italy.

Con­cerns about anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment in Ger­many were al­ready surg­ing af­ter an in­ci­dent a year ear­lier, dur­ing New Year’s Eve cel­e­bra­tions at the end of 2015, when a group of what au­thor­i­ties de­scribed as men of Arab or North African ap­pear­ance sex­u­ally as­saulted more than a dozen women in the city of Cologne.

Other in­ci­dents in­cluded a July 2016 ax and knife at­tack in which a 17-yearold Afghan refugee in­jured four peo­ple on a train near Wurzburg, and a sui­cide bomb­ing out­side a wine bar that same month in the city of Ans­bach, where a 27-year-old Syr­ian-born asy­lum seeker blew him­self up with a back­pack bomb and left 15 in­jured.

Ger­man cen­sus of­fi­cials re­ported this month that the num­ber of peo­ple “with an im­mi­grant back­ground” was up nearly 9 per­cent last year to an all-time high of 18.6 mil­lion. In a coun­try that his­tor­i­cally has not been a mag­net for im­mi­grants, some 22.5 per­cent of the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion were first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants with at least one par­ent born with­out Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship, the of­fice said.

Mr. Trump, as pres­i­dent-elect, said Ms. Merkel had made a “cat­a­strophic mis­take” with her wel­com­ing pol­icy to refugees in 2015.

But while Ger­man au­thor­i­ties wor­ried about a po­ten­tial Is­lamic State role in the at­tacks, some in Europe’s higher-level coun­tert­er­ror­ism com­mu­nity have cau­tioned against jump­ing to con­clu­sions.

In an in­ter­view this sum­mer, Europol Di­rec­tor Rob Wain­wright played down con­cerns that the ter­ror­ist group is ex­ploit­ing the waves of young refugees to insert its own op­er­a­tives into the West. “I don’t see much ev­i­dence of a link­age be­tween mi­gra­tion and ter­ror­ism,” Mr. Wain­wright said. “I don’t think one ac­tu­ally has fed off the other in any sort of what some of the news­pa­per head­lines would have it.”

Mr. Aldeen, the refugee ad­vo­cate in Berlin, said right-wing Ger­man po­lit­i­cal par­ties have pounced on ter­ror­ism fears to ramp up xeno­pho­bic sen­ti­ment and crit­i­cism of Ms. Merkel. He also said in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal me­dia are over­play­ing the threat.

“The me­dia is ex­ag­ger­at­ing the story of ISIS prey­ing on refugees,” said Mr. Aldeen, adding that dur­ing the ini­tial refugee surge in Berlin, Ger­man au­thor­i­ties moved quickly to iden­tify and root out ex­trem­ist preach­ing at a small hand­ful of 19 Ara­bic-speak­ing mosques in the city.

The ‘big­gest dan­ger’

Ger­man pub­lic opin­ion to­ward refugees has fluc­tu­ated while po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions have hard­ened.

One man of Ger­man de­scent in his 40s, who spoke on the con­di­tion of not be­ing named, said there was ini­tially a huge wel­come for refugees by a so­ci­ety with lin­ger­ing guilt over the Nazi treat­ment of the Jews and other mi­nori­ties dur­ing the Holo­caust.

While polls showed a ma­jor­ity of Ger­mans sup­ported Ms. Merkel’s “open door” pol­icy in 2015, there was harsh re­sis­tance from the right. Protests were soon pit­ting pro- and anti-refugee fac­tions against each other in cities across the na­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion gave a boost to the far­right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD), a once-fringe party that sud­denly made gains in re­gional elec­tions last year and whose leader, Frauke Petry, drew scorn from the rul­ing es­tab­lish­ment for equat­ing im­mi­grants to a “com­post heap.”

But more re­cent polls sug­gest that the AfD’s mo­men­tum may have peaked, with only about 10 per­cent of Ger­man vot­ers back­ing the party. Di­vi­sions on the refugee is­sue are still on dis­play, how­ever, at du­el­ing protests ev­ery Mon­day night out­side Berlin’s cen­tral train sta­tion.

On one re­cent Mon­day, men car­ry­ing Rus­sian, Amer­i­can and Ger­man flags hud­dled among about two dozen peo­ple gath­ered for an anti-im­mi­grant rally, where sen­ti­ments were strong that the refugee wave had put Ger­man her­itage un­der danger­ous at­tack.

“What’s hap­pen­ing is the de­struc­tion of the Ger­man peo­ple, who are be­ing re­placed by a for­eign pop­u­la­tion,” said a woman in her 50s who spoke on the con­di­tion of not be­ing named. “The gov­ern­ment is ac­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tat­ing this.”

“The point of why we’re here,” added a 52-year-old man nearby, “is to draw at­ten­tion to the Is­lamiza­tion of this coun­try. That’s the big­gest dan­ger.”

About 100 yards away, past a makeshift po­lice bar­ri­cade, a dozen or so coun­ter­demon­stra­tors were gath­ered to push a very dif­fer­ent mes­sage.

“There are Nazis over there on the other side,” said one young man, who re­fused to say any­thing else to a re­porter “be­cause we don’t like jour­nal­ists or news­pa­pers.”

“This side is made up of anti-fas­cist or­ga­ni­za­tions and grass-roots groups,” added 58-year-old Tony de Vil, who grew up in East Berlin. “We’re re­ally here for two main rea­sons. The first is to op­pose the fas­cist mes­sage in gen­eral, and the sec­ond is to show sup­port for refugees.

“Af­ter two years and a mil­lion refugees, no­body is say­ing there are no prob­lems,” said Mr. de Vil. “But we have the obli­ga­tion in Europe to help peo­ple.”

The ‘first step’

Mil­lions of Mus­lims ar­rived in Ger­many long be­fore the refugee surge. Turk­ish-born Ger­man cit­i­zens rep­re­sent nearly 2.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and con­sti­tute the na­tion’s largest im­mi­grant eth­nic group.

Some of them say the gov­ern­ment should be let­ting in far more refugees.

“I think they’re not let­ting in enough,” said a 48-year-old Turk­ish-Ger­man taxi driver who also spoke on the con­di­tion of not be­ing named. “In Turkey, there are 3.5 mil­lion just Syr­ian refugees right now.

“In­te­gra­tion is a thing that doesn’t hap­pen to­day or to­mor­row,” said the driver, adding that he ar­rived as an im­mi­grant when he was just 7. “It’s a process that takes a lot of time, and I think it will work par­tic­u­larly well with the Syr­ian refugees com­ing into Ger­many be­cause among that group, lots of them have good ed­u­ca­tions. I’m sure in the long run Ger­many will ben­e­fit. But it has to in­vest in them.”

For Ali, the 30-year-old refugee at Tem­pel­hof, feel­ings of safety and op­por­tu­nity out­weigh any fear he has of an­ti­im­mi­grant or anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment.

“The ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple are very nice and sup­port­ive and help the refugees,” he said. “There are some who don’t, but the ma­jor­ity sup­ports refugees. … I feel very wel­come here.”

Ali ex­pressed sor­row that his mother and sis­ter, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, are stuck in his home­town of Hasakah, Syria, about 60 miles east of the Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal in Raqqa.

“It’s hard to know that my fam­ily is back in Syria, and I can­not do any­thing about it,” he said, al­though he quickly added that his fo­cus is on how to make his own life work in Ger­many, where he is re­ceiv­ing about $270 a month in gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance while stay­ing at Tem­pel­hof.

“You have to try and find a good job, and the first step in this di­rec­tion is to speak Ger­man well,” he said. “With­out lan­guage skills, there’s no chance to find a job.”


LIMBO LAND: Tem­po­rary shel­ters were set up in 2015 for mi­grants, refugees and asy­lum seek­ers, but thou­sands are still liv­ing in a state of un­cer­tainty in the fa­cil­i­ties at the for­mer Tem­pel­hof air­port in Berlin.


A refugee re­ceives food for a refugee protest camp in Berlin, Ger­many.

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