Germany @ Canada 2017 Germany: Where the refugee flood is a solution, not a problem

Doug Saunders speaking at a Goethe-Institut Toronto event, 2016
Doug Saunders speaking at a Goethe-Institut Toronto event, 2016 | Photo: Goethe-Institut Toronto / Toby Wang

What about all those tens of thousands of Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis who don’t end up bobbing lifeless in the Mediterranean or steered at gunpoint back to the southern shore? Where do they wind up?

The answer, overwhelmingly, is found here on the western edge of Germany, in the urban quilt around the Rhine and Main rivers. It is here, the booming heartland of the world’s most successful economy, that perhaps the greatest concentration of the war-weary of Africa and Asia are being received, sorted, cleaned up and placed in (figurative and literal) boxes.
 

No other country comes close to hosting so many fleeing people: Last year, Germany received 173,000 refugee applications (and accepted most), a third of Europe’s total and more than twice as many as the second-place country, Sweden. (Canada took 13,000 refugees last year, and expects 16,000 this year.) It is a human tide not seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, when as many as 438,000 refugees a year came to Germany.

Unlike Canada, where refugees are mainly sponsored by families and charities, the German government sorts and disperses its asylum seekers: Towns and cities with the strongest economies get the most. This week, Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the 27 other European Union countries to imitate this system internationally. The response, so far, has been chilly.
 
In Germany, by contrast, the public and their politicians are receiving the majority of Europe’s refugees with surprising calm, even optimism. While there was a brief flare-up of anti-immigrant politics earlier this year in cities of the former East Germany (where there are almost no immigrants to be found), those died away quickly. Here, even refugee advocates say they’re surprised by the broadly positive reception.
 
“I am really amazed at how much this country has changed – even a decade ago this would have created anger and distrust, but today I’m hearing nothing but welcome for the new refugees – people are being really open,” says Zerai Kiros Abraham, a former Eritrean refugee who now runs Project Moses, a refugee-settlement charity in Frankfurt.

Olaf Cunitz, the vice-mayor of Frankfurt responsible for planning and housing, says that the refugees are being seen by many Germans not as a problem but as a solution. “What’s unusual is that here in Frankfurt, people are very, very open to the topic of refugees,” he says. “At the moment, we don’t have any resistance, in any neighbourhood, to the settlement of refugees. People say ‘We need new people, they need our help. We’re a wealthy city, we can handle this.’”
 
Nowhere is this attitude more visible than in the rural town of Gelnhausen, to the east of Frankfurt, where town officials are hoping that the 2,500 refugees they will receive this year will be just the thing for their aging, fast-shrinking work force. They particularly want the Syrians, who tend to be middle-class and have the professional degrees and technical skills needed here.
 
“The good thing about the refugees is that they’re here – we don’t have to go out to their communities to get them,” says Susanne Simmler, head of the regional council. “We have labour shortages and demographic changes here, so we need new people – and a rural region like this normally does not attract immigrants.”
 
It helps considerably that Germany has recently ended its policy of banning refugees from seeking employment: This had left many earlier asylum seekers loitering in public squares and shopping malls, falling into marginal lives and giving a bad image to immigrants in general – and depriving Germany of badly needed labour. Now they can work after three months, and employers and municipalities are pressuring Berlin to let them work sooner.
 
The optimism may be short-lived: Refugees, unlike immigrants, often have a difficult time settling, as they lack the language ability, the savings and connections needed to start businesses, and are often deeply traumatized. For now, the big question, across the country, is where to house them all. Many are living in thousands of state-issued shipping-container shelters, which are a blot on the landscape and tend to become undesirable neighbourhoods.
 
Marion Schmitz-Stadtfeld is a senior official with the large public-housing corporation NH. She wants to build hundreds of thousands of “NH Homies” – prefabricated wood-frame housing modules of two stories, insulated and designed for energy efficiency and, crucially, reusable as frames for student housing or even condominiums. (Officials expect at least two-thirds of the refugees to return home once the Syrian war subsides.) These, she says, will be mixed into residential neighbourhoods.
 
“This is more than just accommodation, it’s more than just having a house,” she says. “You also need to develop a culture of welcome.” And for the moment, that’s what seems to be happening.