Before moving to Berlin, I was aware of the Syrian refugee crisis through news reports and the kinds of serious discussions grad students delight in having into the wee hours, but it wasn’t until I arrived in the city that the reality of the situation really struck me.
The Crisis Up-Close
Previously, it had been an abstract problem: now, it’s the real deal. Of course, for those fleeing Syria, it has been the real deal all along. But what exactly is this situation? We hear varied and sometimes contradictory statements and stories about what is actually going on, and unless you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to know what Syrian refugees are facing. Well, I’m in the middle of it now, so let me fill in some of the pertinent details that those sober news reports leave out.
This is, in my view, the biggest problem faced on both sides of the crisis. Here’s what happens: Syrians (or any other refugees, for that matter) who come to Germany seeking asylum are allocated to a specific initial aid facility. In theory, they are admitted to a facility, and within about a week their personal details are processed, and they complete an application for official asylum status. This status lets them stay in Germany for up to three years, and receive a monthly stipend from the government. To be granted this status, asylum-seekers are interviewed individually: this interview determines whether or not asylum status will be granted to them. If they don’t receive the go-ahead to stay in Germany, they can appeal through the administrative courts, but if they are denied, they have to leave. Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Well, in theory, it might be fine, but in practice, things get a little more complicated. The aid facilities are full to bursting thanks to the enormous influx of people migrating into Germany (and other European countries), so often refugees are unable to receive aid from their allocated station. This means they have no access to basic human needs: no showers, no beds, no medical care, and no food. If they do manage to get into a facility, the wait-time for applying and processing is enormously long.
In the meantime, they are prohibited from working, which means that they’re unable to support themselves or their families: they’re in a kind of status limbo. If and when they do finally go through all the proper channels, get approved, and receive their asylum status, they are still not allowed to work for three months, and getting a work permit in Germany for a non-German citizen is a whole other process. Meanwhile, because they have achieved asylum status, they are no longer able to stay at the aid stations. This means that once the process is complete, refugees have to survive on a government stipend of approximately three hundred and fifty Euros a month in a country where they may or may not speak the national language, and with little means to supplement their welfare income. Long story short: being a refugee is awful.
But on the other side of the situation is the German civil service workforce trying to process all of these people quickly and efficiently while still being thorough and fair in their work. The State Office of Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo), meant to help refugees, Syrian or otherwise, was set up to accommodate approximately two hundred thousand people per year. In 2015 alone there was estimated to be four times that number entering the country. The system may work well for processing and assisting the regular number of asylum-seekers, but the system is being overwhelmed. Compared to July of 2014’s migrant intake, Germany saw a ninety-three percent increase in July of 2015. There aren’t enough aid facilities to hold everyone, so many are turned away. There aren’t enough officers to conduct personal interviews, which creates a bottle neck in the process. Training people to do the jobs required to keep the system running smoothly takes a long time, and unfortunately, asylum-seekers don’t have time to wait: their basic human needs are not necessarily being met.
The Big Picture
My first reaction to learning about this whole situation was to think, “Surely other European countries could step in here, right? They could share in the responsibility!” Well, as I have since learned, yes and no. In theory, this might work, but as always, in practice, things are rarely that straight-forward. There is actually European Union (EU) legislature that is meant to encourage all EU countries to take on refugees as equally as possible so that one country isn’t overwhelmed. It’s called the Dublin procedure, and before this crisis, it seemed to work out not too badly. But Europe is largely experiencing a major economic downturn, and a lot of people are concerned about the sharing of resources. In fact, in August of this year, German chancellor Angela Merkel dropped the Dublin rulings on asylum-seekers, taking on sole responsibility for refugees who land in Germany, regardless of the other European states they may have traveled through.
There are many in Germany who strongly disagree with her decision: in fact, many aid stations have been the targets of racially-motivated violence, protest and riots, spurred on by a concern that refugees would replace Germans in the job market and have a negative impact on the economy. These concerns seem largely unfounded: numbers show that in fact, migration into Germany by non-German citizens brings in about twenty-two million dollars per year, even taking into account the welfare used by those with asylum status. Stephan Seibert of Merkel’s office has publicly condemned all violent acts aimed at asylum-seekers, calling them “repulsive” and “shameful”. Police forces have been engaged to protect refugees from these attacks. For now, it seems that the plan of action is to try to process as many people as quickly as possible and hope that the system isn’t completely overwhelmed to the point of stagnation, and that anti-refugee protests and riots won’t hold up the system even further.
Filling in the Gaps
Where the government is unable to provide help, regular folks here in Berlin are pitching in to fill the gaps. Plenty of charitable and non-profit organisations are joining forces with the government to provide aid and other services to refugees. The Fluchtlinge Wilkommen organisation works to connect refugees in need of a place to stay with Berliners who have spaces they want to share. Give Something Back to Berlin allows asylum-seekers to get settled in their community and engage with their neighbours. Berliner Stadtmission works to provide immediate aid and fulfill basic human needs to struggling refugees. Even the mayor’s office has organised a volunteer operation, where Berliners can offer their services or their time, and will be matched up with people to help. In my experience so far, the general sentiment towards asylum-seekers here is divided: some offer the new arrivals Herzlich Wilkommen! (a hearty welcome!), while other Berliners are less than happy about the situation. It’s a complex state of affairs that, for the time being, doesn’t seem to have many easy answers.