Bleakness and Thin Blankets: Bavaria’s Struggle with Welcoming Asylum Seekers
BERLIN—An overfilled refugee camp. People are sleeping on the ground, on the pavement, on tarmac, on the grass under the open sky. It is October so temperatures drop to 5 degrees Celsius overnight, a reminder that winter is approaching. Some refugees have been provided with thin blankets, some haven’t. Where is this happening? In Lebanon or Turkey, where large numbers of refugees are trying to reach safety across the border day after day? No. This is Munich, one of the richest cities in Germany. The situation is a disturbing example for the lack of coordination and preparedness for the current refugee crisis across Germany.
Although the dramatic developments in Syria and Iraq, the tragedies of stranded refugees and the discussions about adequate political responses have dominated public debates in the past months, the responses are still uncoordinated, half-hearted and without a sustainable strategy. From the local to the EU level, a concerted approach is needed. Back in Munich, conditions in the refugee camp are chaotic. It is overcrowded, sanitary conditions are appalling. The administration is hurriedly developing emergency plans. There are front-page reports in local newspapers: “Camp beds in classrooms,” “Will refugees find shelter in an Oktoberfest tent?” The public authorities are overwhelmed, paralyzed by the sheer numbers. Initial registration takes up to a week, and waiting for the first interview with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees takes up to three months, according to a Syrian lawyer stuck in the camp. They have made it across the Mediterranean, braving rough seas or risking their lives on perilous journeys. Now they are drowning in a flood of paragraphs and questionnaires. And officials are claiming that a situation like this could not have been predicted. Really? Refugee numbers have already been rising during the past years. First steadily, then dramatically. A total of 2,966 asylum seekers came to Bavaria in 2007; this number has since gone up, reached 16,698 in 2013. From January to August 2014, 14,499 asylum applications were registered, with up to 400 refugees arriving per day in the past weeks. Located on the southern border of Germany, a three-hour-drive from Italy, Bavaria’s geographical location might suggest that the south-north refugee flows from southern Europe would sooner or later affect it. But obviously the state government has hoped that it won’t happen. And the population? The people of Munich are enraged about this obvious neglect and failure to provide refugees with adequate accommodation. Munich’s slogan is “World City with a heart,” open to the world, welcoming. Munich is proud of it. Donations are pouring in of clothes and blankets, and volunteers are offering their help. Roundtables are organized, citizens mobilized. Munich’s Refugee Council coordinates the in-kind donations and communicates what is needed most urgently — winter jackets, coats, warm clothes, baby strollers. Professional soccer coaches are even offering weekly trainings to about 100 unaccompanied minors. This is really good news. Unlike in the early 1990s, when the public debate about refugees and asylum was highly emotional, polarized, and sometimes violent, neither commentators, political leaders nor the press have resorted to nautical metaphors of “floods”, “waves,” and “full boats” to describe the situation now.
Although an estimated 250,000 asylum seekers might reach Germany this year, the public mood seems to be more sympathetic and not willing to turn this already desperate issue into a shameful situation. Or as one refugee worker put it, “It seems that the population is much more progressive and pragmatic than leading politicians think.” But clearly the situation cannot be overstretched. Firstly, the federal states need support. Currently, Bavaria is running on emergency plans, frantically looking for empty public buildings so asylum seekers can be accommodated, as if it were an unexpected natural disaster. Emergency task forces need to be turned into permanent task forces to develop medium-term readiness plans. Secondly, more financial support by the German federal government is needed. To ease the pressure, the Federal Office for Migration needs more personnel. Processing asylum applications takes up to a year right now, and there is a backlog of more than 120,000 applications nationally. Costs for health care and housing for asylum seekers should be shouldered at the federal level. And thirdly, the issue needs to be tackled on the EU level. As discussed in the Justice and Home Affairs Council Meeting in Brussels two weeks ago, EU member states and sending countries need to coordinate in order to better manage migratory flows. So asylum seekers will no longer have to sleep outside on the bare ground.
Tanja Wunderlich is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Migration & Society in The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Berlin office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.