The private space of the Redjep family can be measured by the number of beds in it – five. The metal frames are arranged next to each other, topped with sagging mattresses and musty sheets and blankets. Two screens shield them from their neighbors.
Erwin, the head of the family of five from Macedonia, puts his hands in the pockets of his gray sweatpants and takes a look around the drab refugee center where his family is sheltered, a former school in the old coalmining city of Dortmund.
“I feel like an invalid, although I am as fit as a fiddle,” he says.
Mr. Redjep is one of hundreds of refugees who arrive in the northeast German city every day. “On foot, by taxi or tractor,” said a spokesperson for the mayor. Some stay, others are taken by bus to other cities.
Dortmund, like nearby Bielefeld, is an initial processing point for refugees. From there they are moved to the former school or one of eight other locations. The influx is proving too much for the city, as it is for many municipalities in Germany.
“In many federal states, contributions currently paid by federal and state governments to municipalities are far short of covering costs.”
Between January and June this year, 159,927 people applied for asylum in Germany – almost as many as all of last year. The country is currently Europe’s top destination for refugees. Cities and towns are simply not prepared. North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Dortmund and Bielefeld lie, currently has to take 5,000 people per week.
In the town of Halberstadt in eastern Germany, refugees are put up in makeshift tents. Camp Isind, which lies in a former border zone between East and West Germany, was meant for 1,000 refugees at most. Now 1,650 live there.
Hundreds of others come to the central reception point – or “Zast” to be processed and then distributed throughout the country.
Halberstadt, which has a population of 42,000, has had to adapt to the new situation. Volunteers from fire brigades, social organizations and local businesses helped to improvise the makeshift accommodation.
Today, clothes have been hung out to dry outside the 23 tents. Outside them, stand two rows of portable toilets, red and blue, separate for men and women.
Camp II is now being erected, but everything is in short supply – no supply tent, no rain shelter screens, no portable showers, too few children’s sleeping bags. But the refugees keep coming.
The camp is only a stop-gap solution, a state government spokesperson emphasized. But everyone asks what will happen if more people come.
“Towns and municipalities expect federal and state governments to pay for all costs in accommodation, care and integration of refugees,” said Gerd Landsberg, head of the association of municipalities.
“In many federal states, contributions currently paid by federal and state governments to municipalities are far short of covering costs,” he said.
Mr. Landsberg called for “a comprehensive construction program by federal and state governments,” to unburden the municipalities’ finances.
Cities and towns don’t have the money or see the big picture when it comes to dealing with Germany’s influx of refugees. But they have to deal with the situation they are in.
In Bad Homburg, refugees arrive on Mondays – usually about 30 people, carrying plastic bags that contain everything they own. Katrin Hechler, a politician responsible for the affluent north Frankfurt suburb, usually receives a fax on the previous Tuesday with a few details: Names, genders, probable dates of birth and probable nationalities.
The refugees are sheltered at an old school, a former hospital and even a container storage area in Oberursel, a small town near Frankfurt.
“We need this living space urgently, even if it is not up to scratch in many ways,” said Ms. Hechler, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, the minority partner in Germany’s coalition government.
“In Macedonia I worked on building sites and earned just €200 in a good month. I was ashamed that I couldn’t offer my children more.”
Three new shelters have long been planned, but she can’t promise if even one will be finished by the end of the year.
Back in Dortmund, Erwin Redjep says he feels condemned to do nothing.
“I have a brain, hands and legs, and want to work,” said the 40-year-old, staring at the gray-patterned linoleum floor.
Mr. Redjep always carries a black belt-bag with his most important items: A few banknotes. He cannot get a bank account, a job or a proper place to live until the authorities issue him with an identification card.
He probably won’t receive one. His home state, Macedonia, has long been categorized as a safe non-E.U. state, and the chances of him being granted asylum are currently less than 1 percent.
But that did not stop him trying. He, his wife and three children left the poverty of their homeland behind – in pursuit of happiness in Germany.
Mr. Redjep lived in Germany once before, in the 1990s. He trained in a joiner’s workshop there and learned some of the language. But he returned home, got married in 2000, and then his children were born.
“In Macedonia I worked on building sites and earned just €200 in a good month,” he said. “I was ashamed that I couldn’t offer my children more.”
The German economy urgently needs people like him who are willing to work. According to a recent study by the employment agency Manpower, 40 percent of companies in Germany complain of too few applications for job vacancies. Skilled employees are especially hard to find.
Labor market experts such as Achim Dercks, of the German chamber of industry and commerce, say the qualifications of asylum-seekers should be determined earlier. The chamber believes those who are qualified for jobs that are in demand – such as technicians, engineers or artisans – should be able to switch their status to migrant workers without any problem.
This is the hope that sustains Mr. Redjep. For now he tries to keep as low a profile as possible in his current accommodation, because he wants no trouble.
“I tell my children to keep quiet,” he said. “They should stay close to me or my wife.”
Another family shares the room with the Redjeps, but they don’t know their names or where they are from. They cannot talk to each other because they don’t speak the same language. The other family’s little daughter, perhaps two years old, was playing between the screens with a plastic bucket. Her older sister was listening to a portable music player on the bed. Their parents were not there.
Mr. Redjep does not expect much. He just wants his small share of happiness – a job, two rooms with a kitchenette for him and his family. Not much, but a little more than five single beds lined up one after the other in an old school.
Dorit Marschall is a Handelsblatt reporter specializing in reportage, Annkathrin Frind and Christian Wermke are reporters for the paper. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org