BERLIN — Daniel Krawczyk is convinced bad things will happen to his Berlin neighborhood once the refugees move in: “They’ll break into our basements,” he says, “steal our kids’ cell phones, bring crime and violence and take away our jobs.”
The 29-year-old janitor in the eastern outskirts of Berlin is among many locals up in arms over the city’s plans to turn an empty high school into a center for up to 400 asylum seekers, part of growing opposition to refugee shelters across the country.
The boat-is-full mentality in Germany is finding an echo in the government: “Even an economically strong country like Germany is considerably challenged” by the influx, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said recently, in an apparent attempt to reflect voter fears two months ahead of general elections. Meanwhile the far-right is exploiting anti-refugee fears, seeking new supporters as its members participate in rallies against new asylum shelters.
About 43,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in the first six months of 2013, almost double the roughly 23,000 for the same period in 2012. While the numbers are a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who flowed into Germany at the height of the 1990s Yugoslavia wars, German cities still find themselves struggling to cope with the influx of recent refugees, mainly from Syria, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Germany is the top destination for refugees to the European Union, followed by Sweden, France and Britain, all of which also received thousands of asylum applications during the last few months.
Berlin in particular is struggling; some of its shelters are so overcrowded that beds for new arrivals are sometimes put up in hallways and community rooms. In the first half of the year, 2,300 new refugees arrived in the German capital, compared to 1,180 in the same period last year. While Germany’s states pay for room and board, it is city governments, often broke, that need to advance the money — sometimes taking up loans for putting up the refugees.
Germany has rigid quotas for the percentage of refugees every city or region must take in. In the case of Berlin, for example, it’s 5 percent of all refugees coming to Germany. Once the refugees arrive the law requires that they be provided housing and board while their applications are processed, something that can take months and sometimes years. In the first six months of this year, nearly 4,800 refugees were allowed to settle permanently in Germany, about 15 percent of the processed cases in that period.
Protests against new asylum centers are not restricted to Berlin only, but pop up all over the country as more refugees arrive. In Sachsenheim, near Stuttgart, locals rallied against a planned shelter for 60 refugees. Although the shelter will still open, city officials restricted the number of refugees taken in to 37, with the rest going to other homes. Locals recently launched a petition drive against a new home for up to 200 refugees in Augsburg in Bavaria. And residents in Hamburg’s Moorfleet district held a protest when the city announced it wants to turn an old school into an asylum center for 100 people.
Last month, an asylum center in Arnstadt, southwest of Berlin, was attacked by two men who hurled firecrackers and shouted racial insults. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of crimes against foreigners or foreign interests rose 16.5 percent in 2012 compared to the year before.
Nowhere is the conflict clearer than in Krawczyk’s formerly East German neighborhood of Hellersdorf, where massive, Communist-era apartment buildings stretch for as far as the eye can see. It was in this struggling part of town that Berlin officials decided in June to lodge up to 400 refugees, transforming an abandoned four-story high school into a dormitory for asylum seekers.
Clearly, however, Berlin authorities were caught off guard by the hostile backlash in Hellersdorf — a neighborhood that is almost entirely German — and by the speed with which the far-right, anti-immigrant National Democratic Party moved to exploit that anger.
No sooner had the plan been announced than posters appeared proclaiming “Nein zum Heim” — “No to the Shelter.” Leaflets and a Facebook page warned that the neighborhood would be overrun with thieves, littered with garbage and that the playground would no longer be safe for German children.
The Berlin wing of the NPD posted a statement on its home page claiming that “asylum seeker homes are a hotbed for crime.” In an effort to allay fears, the local district council in July invited residents for a town hall-style meeting about the asylum center. Around 900 people showed up, among them dozens of NPD members and sympathizers who, officials say, hijacked the meeting by agitating the crowd with their xenophobic message.
Police were called in for fear of violence. “The mood at the meeting was so tense and heated that I was really afraid,” said Rafaele Kiene, a council member from the center-left Green Party that supports the asylum seekers. “The refugees who come here are traumatized. They didn’t leave their home countries for fun. They are escaping war and violence.”
Kiene said she received an anonymous email threat after posting media accounts of the dispute online. “I received a threatening email demanding I take down all the information — or else,” she said. Despite the resistance, Berlin authorities insist they will push ahead with the center, although they have postponed moving asylum seekers into the building — and won’t say when the move will take place.
Supporters of the plan have urged authorities to post 24-hour security around the empty building to prevent arson or vandalism. “I hope that once the refugees arrive,” Kiene said, “the residents will just get used to them like they did in all the other Berlin neighborhoods where refugee homes were opened.”