Refugee Crisis: Unease Mixes with Empathy in Germany

Any Eckardt, NBC News, September 26, 2015

While the wave of German generosity for incoming refugees might be unabated, it’s starting to coming up against a swell of angst and unease.

Nearly all the chairs in the sports hall of this small rural town were occupied one recent evening by locals keen to air their concerns over a refugee processing center due to open there in an abandoned military installation.

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“How is this supposed to continue?” asked Herbert Gross, 70. “We are taking in more and more and more people. Many of them get better housing than a poor worker in Germany,” he added, to applause.

The town of 1,900 residents in central Germany will host a temporary housing facility for up to 900 refugees and migrants in that former military installation. The site was designated by the local state of Hessia amid broader efforts to find winter-proof housing for Germany’s unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants.

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While Schreiber admitted he too is concerned that the “dynamic situation” could become overwhelming–Hessia state has been taking in more than 7,000 refugees a week–he tried to reassure the residents at Rothwesten’s meeting about their new neighbors by saying security and a fence will be in place at the housing compound.

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“There have […] been signs that the initial elation is fading,” Der Spiegel weekly wrote in a lead article this week. “Germany is struggling to maintain its composure and to ward off panic.”

A potential backlash could be further fueled by latest cost estimates for the crisis.

The Munich-based IFO economic research institute said that an initial cost estimate of $11.1 billion for the crisis is “conservative” and could be higher because it does not take into consideration additional family members who might come later and the pressure on the education system.

Officials in Germany also are worried that growing anti-refugee sentiment could result in support for the country’s far-right groups. German Federal Police have already registered more than 300 right-wing motivated assaults on refugee- and asylum seeker homes in 2015 and said in a statement that it is seeing a “new quantity and quality of the crimes.”

Raed Saleh, a Berlin politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party, said he fears that the initial “euphoria” around the refugee crisis “cannot be preserved for very long,” but warned against writing off public criticism as a far-right problem.

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Back in Rothwesten, Mayor Schreiber was quick to offer plans to combat “walling-off and ghettoization” of refugees.

“We can set up coffee meetings with women from the shelter, organize football tournaments for the children and even teach the refugees how we recycle waste,” Schreiber suggested.

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By the end of the evening, more than two dozen other residents had signed up for volunteer work. For now, the chance to help appeared to outweigh fears of potential harm to the community–with history invoked to rally support.

“In 1945, we were also seen as the bad people in Germany,” 82-year old Horst Polikowski told the audience, explaining how he’d been part of a refugee exodus from the East at the end of World War II and offering up two apartments he owns for refugees. “We integrated here, we made it, the world will not come to an end with these refugees.”

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