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Germany Passing the Refugee Buck

Refugees are being shipped all around Europe.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is opening itself up to accusations of hypocrisy over its refugee policy.

  • Facts


    • Germany expects to receive 1 million asylum seekers by the end of the year.
    • It has criticized neighbors such as Slovenia and Greece for failing to properly manage the influx.
    • More than 40,000 refugees have been shipped from Germany’s Baltic coast to Sweden since the beginning of September.
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When Jamal gets off the train in Rostock, a city on Germany’s Baltic coast, he is met by a group of friendly young persons in reflective vests. Whenever a long-distance train pulls into the station, they spread out along the platform and scrutinize the passengers.

Whoever looks Arabic or African and is carrying the meager luggage of a have-not is stopped and asked: “Are you a refugee? Do you want to go to Sweden?” Jamal, a 19-year-old Afghan, twice says “yes” in broken but comprehensible English.

He and the other refugees proceed to the main hall of the station, where a sign conveys the most important message in four languages, including Arabic and English: “We are not the police. No registration.”

Germany is currently assuming the role in the refugee crisis that it felt so comfortable with during the Greek financial crisis – that of selfless schoolmaster. Not only is it taking in the most refugees and shouldering the biggest burden, it is also the only country in Europe that is so far keeping to E.U. rules in its management of new arrivals. That, at least, is the common perception.

“Initially, there were a few dozen per day; now, it is several hundred. In no way were we prepared.”

Robert Methling, Mayor of Rostock

After all, other countries, especially those through which the stream of refugees flows, are doing almost everything wrong. Greece? Doesn’t bother with registration. Slovenia? Can’t even manage to offer asylum seekers a roof over their heads. Austria? Puts up signs showing the way to Germany. Only in Germany are new arrivals registered and given shelter.

But is that actually the case? Is Germany in fact trying to move refugees on to other countries?

Jamal hadn’t intended to travel to Sweden. He comes from Kunduz, where his father worked for the Germans when they were still in the city. A distant relative lives in Hamburg, so when the war came to his town he set out for the northern German city.

He left a month ago. But since then, things have changed. “For us Afghans, the situation in Germany is difficult at the moment. We don’t know whether we will be allowed to stay here,” he said.

During the journey, Jamal joined up with three other youths. They now intend to travel on to Scandinavia.

Germany was never the sole dream destination among the refugees. Many always wanted to go to Sweden because of its immigrant-friendly laws. Although the southern German state of Bavaria has seen more than 300,000 refugees arrive since the beginning of September, Sweden, which has a much smaller population, has received 40,000 in the same period from Rostock alone.

Every day in the city, 1,000 refugees are being distributed on the three daily ferries to Trelleborg, Sweden, a route better known for freight than passenger transport. Few foot passengers used the service – at least not until September 9.

Days before, neighboring Denmark had decided to close its borders. On September 9, Robert Methling, Rostock’s mayor, got a call from the German interior ministry: Refugees were on their way to Rostock, on their own initiative.

“Initially, there were a few dozen per day; now, it is several hundred,” says Mr. Methling. “In no way were we prepared.” This is a polite euphemism for a chaotic state of affairs.

Refugees board a Sweden-bound ferry in the German port of Rostock. Source: AP


The city did what it could. An old vocational training center was made available to the refugees; 400 beds were set up, but it was jam-packed after one day. If it hadn’t been for the local group Rostock Helps quickly mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, refugees would have been sleeping out in the open long ago.

Now there are two large halls, food, a security service and a reception center at the train station. Without the volunteers, none of this would exist.

In the meantime, the city is doing everything it can to get rid of the refugees. Looking after them costs money. Rostock has so far spent €2 million ($2.2 million) on the new arrivals. An agreement was reached with the ferry companies to allow a maximum of 150 persons per ship to travel to Sweden; the same number can embark three times a day from the port of Sassnitz along the coast.

The city assumes the cost of transport to the harbors and, if refugees don’t have the money, it pays for their sea passage as well. “That is the much less expensive variant for us,” says Mr. Methling.

Mr. Methling calls this “pragmatism.” But when Austria does the same thing for refugees wanting to cross into Germany, albeit only transporting them to the land border post, Bavaria’s minister of internal affairs Joachim Herrmann calls it “scandalous.”

In Sweden, meanwhile, discussions these days focus almost exclusively on how to handle the refugees. A moderate restriction to the right to asylum has already been agreed upon, and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven recently visited Trelleborg.

One might be inclined to castigate as people smugglers those neighbors who day after day send fully loaded ferries to this final destination. But in Trelleborg, Mr. Löfven spoke of a “challenging situation” and praised the “fine job” being done by all the people helping the refugees.

Successful politics is also a question of style.


This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: online@wiwo.de

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