German Towns Filled With Refugees Ask, ‘Who Is Integrating Whom?’

Andrea Thomas, Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2017

Late this summer, Nadine Langer took her six-year old to her first day at school. The girl was one of two German children in her class, she said, amid 20, mostly Syrian, refugees.

“I am not against foreigners,” said Ms. Langer, 41. “But there is a point where we have to wonder who is integrating whom.”

Germany’s 2015 refugee crisis has largely disappeared from the headlines. But in this and other midsize towns, it is continuing to unfold, putting communities under stress, pressuring local coffers and feeding concerns about safety, jobs and the quality of education.

Some 140,000 asylum seekers have entered Germany so far this year—a sharp drop from the 1.2 million who arrived in the past two years. But in places such as Salzgitter there is a sense that the government, having housed and fed the newcomers, is failing in the longer-term effort to integrate them in German society.

This unease, pollsters say, boosted the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany at last month’s election, making it the first far-right party to enter parliament in half a century. This shock means immigration will loom large when Chancellor Angela Merkel kicks off negotiations on Wednesday to form a three-party ruling coalition.

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“The established parties lived in a bubble. They said everything was fine, closed their eyes to reality and didn’t see people’s concern,” said Salzgitter’s mayor Frank Klingebiel.

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With about 5,700 mainly Syrian refugees for 106,000 residents, the highest proportion in the country, Salzgitter is an outlier. But several other communities, from Wilhelmshaven in the north to Hof in the south are also struggling.

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Concerns range from the impact on schools to rising welfare costs, crime, and a diffuse sense that the local culture is becoming diluted, defeating the purpose of integration.

“There are permanently fights and the police have to come,” said Gülcan Dia, a 46-year-old German of Turkish heritage who works for a charity helping refugees.

Wherever refugees outnumber German children in schools, critics like Ms. Dia say, they find it harder to learn German. Local pupils, too, are falling behind on the curriculum.

A national school report released Friday showed a correlation between rising numbers of migrant schoolchildren and a deterioration in academic performance. In 2016, the share of foreign fourth-graders rose by one third to 34% from 2011, according to the education ministry, while the number of children who passed standard writing requirements dropped to 55% against 65% five years earlier.

Salzgitter Mayor Klingebiel said the town was struggling to find teachers for schools, kindergarten and adult language classes.

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Entering the labor market has proven equally difficult. Nationally, only 15.3% of adult nationals from the refugees’ main countries of origin had a regular job in July, two years after the refugee crisis peaked, according to the German labor agency. In Salzgitter, 91% of asylum seekers and refugees live on benefits.

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