people in need

Refugee Support Stretched to the Limit

African imigrants in a church in Hamburg, Source Markus katzel imagetrust
Asylum-seekers from Africa sleeping in a church in Hamburg.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German government has ended its program which provided support for refugees from Syria – but the influx shows no signs of abating.

  • Facts


    • The German immigration authority estimates that 300,000 more refugees will come to Germany this year.
    • Compared to other European countries, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden accept the highest number of Syrian refugees.
    • An aid program for Syrian refugees coming to Germany via the country’s embassies in Lebanon and Turkey ended in March.
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“When people need help, we will help, even if that means taking on more refugees,” said Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

That willingness seems to be reaching its limits.

In late March, an aid program for Syrian refugees who reach Germany via the country’s embassies in Lebanon and Turkey came to an end. It was the only legal choice for people who didn’t reach Germany by taking the risky route across the Mediterranean.

“People act like we're doing everything possible for Syrian refugees. In fact, everything possible is being done so they don’t get here in the first place.”

Günter Burkhard, Chief Executive, Pro Asyl

To date, 20,000 Syrians came to Germany via this program but this route is now closed.

“People act like we’re doing everything possible for Syrian refugees,” said Günter Burkhard, chief executive of the German refugee aid organization Pro Asyl. “In fact, everything possible is being done so they don’t get here in the first place.”

Mr. Burkhard said that people often see the Syrians who drown in the Mediterranean route as an Italian problem. “In fact, it’s a problem for Berlin.”

Politicians in Germany disagree over how the issue should be handled and politicians in the coalition government are divided.

The social democrats say the refugee aid program is vital. People seeking asylum in Germany often take a dangerous route, they argue, and this system was a way to help vulnerable people, such as opposition politicians, journalists, women, victims of torture and the relatives of those who have been persecuted.

When the program ends, it will be expensive to start it again, one senior official said. But the interior ministry, headed by Thomas de Maizière, a Christian democrat, only wants to accept more refugees if other countries do so too.

Compared to other European countries, Germany and Sweden accept the most Syrian refugees. These countries took in 52 percent of all asylum seekers from Syria. In contrast, Liechtenstein accepted 25 refugees; Hungary took in 30.

“What does that mean?” one diplomat asked. “Do we stop accepting refugees if others won’t take in more?”

Willingness to accept refugees is not only ebbing at a political level; the public is also less supportive of refugees who have made it to Germany.


refugees dpa
Refugees who have reached Germany. Source: DPA



In Thuringia, Burkhard Zamboni heads a place where refugees can go when they first reach Germany. Talking with Mr. Zamboni, the situation sounds positive.

There are 600 refugees living at his institution, though there is only space for 512 people and many communal areas have been turned into bedrooms. Some nights, hundreds more refugees are lining up hoping for a bed just a short distance away.

Across Germany, other institutions for refugees arriving are overloaded, even as cities and states are building new ones. In the state of Thuringia, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of space as there are many empty municipal buildings, though people are living in 97 percent of the rooms available. In Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westfalia, many refugees are housed in sports halls without any privacy.

The immigration authority estimates that 300,000 more refugees will come to Germany this year. But the number could be twice as high, according to Torsten Albig, governor of the state of Schleswig Holstein.

Amnesty International says the current situation is “the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.” If the conflict in the Ukraine escalates, then “all our efforts won’t be enough,” Mr. Zamboni said.

Ministers are calling on the government to unlock funding for cities and communities. “The government needs to be much more involved in hosting and integrating refugees,” said Dieter Lauinger, Thuringia’s governor. “For me, it’s less about the budget and more a question of attitude,” Mr. Albig said.

The federal government has noted the difficulty: When Mr. de Maizière visited a barracks in Munich which was home to 200 refugees, he acknowledged that the situation for the people there clearly wasn’t “comfortable.”

Asked whether the interior ministry would do something about the high numbers of refugees entering Germany, Mr. de Mazière responded with a curt “no.” Firstly, more people would be needed at the immigration authority. Secondly, the federal states and cities are the ones who are responsible for dealing with refugees. Lastly, the refugee question should be understood in a European context, Mr. de Maizière said.

When asked, Germany’s finance ministry also referred to the agreement between the government and federal states which “was understood to finalize the question for 2015 and 2016.” If the states can’t deal with the refugees themselves, changes would be needed to Germany’s constitution. The problem is that this could take several years.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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