“Welcome culture” runs into resource realities: Already short-staffed and stretched thin, regional officials around Germany say their refugee efforts are getting to be too much.
They have the space to put up refugees, but not much else. That’s what officials of Cottbus, an eastern German city about 90 minutes from Berlin, told DW. Housing, they said, is not as much of an issue here as it is in many other parts of the country.
Organizing living space, however, is only the beginning of a long and expensive resettlement process. Ukrainian refugees in Cottbus live in their own accommodations, not shelters, the city spokesperson said, although they aren’t all furnished.
The bigger challenge for Cottbus is integrating newcomers into city life, especially in terms of providing adequate education and health care.
“The feds reimburse us for the upfront asylum costs, but not the running costs,” Stefanie Kaygusuz-Schurmann, the head of Cottbus’ education and integration department, said. The city lacks interpreters and staff to offer extra help, she said, and relies on the generosity of volunteers.
She described medical practices struggling to keep up with their regular patient load and the addition of war refugees.
A burden on German communities
Just a stone’s throw from the Polish border — many street signs are in both German and Polish — Cottbus became a center of the Ukrainian exodus to Germany after Russia invaded in February. Many of the now approximately one million refugees recorded in the country passed through this city of 100,000 people.
About 1,500 have been resettled here, according to city statistics. One-third are of school age. That means about 500 children and young people, with various education levels, language abilities, and war-borne traumas, needed to be quickly incorporated into the local school system.
Cottbus, like many parts of Germany, was already facing infrastructure issues before the war. The solution for city officials is a building binge, and a training and hiring campaign. Neither can happen overnight, and both, they say, need state and federal financial support. They are increasingly complaining that the federal government is leaving them in the lurch, and that aid promised earlier this year has not come to fruition.
“Rich Germany can do everything,” Jan Glossmann, the mayor’s spokesperson, told DW. “But that money is not spread around evenly.”
Nor, state and local officials around Germany say, are refugees.
Migration is largely a state-level issue. Refugee distribution is based on an algorithm that takes into account a state’s population and tax revenue. That means the populous and comparatively wealthy western state of North Rhine-Westphalia receives around 21% of Germany’s refugees, according to the Federal Migration Office, while the eastern state of Brandenburg, where Cottbus is located, receives 3%.
The formula may work on paper, but by early September, 12 of Germany’s 16 states reported that they were at their breaking point, according to the Federal Interior Ministry.
Earlier this month, Cottbus made national headlines when it announced it would no longer accept refugees without a more “equitable” resettlement policy.
The announcement prompted “no official response” from state or federal authorities, Glossmann said.
“The federal government has no plan,” Kaygusuz-Schurmann said.
She also blamed poor coordination at the European Union level. The bloc has bickered for years over a fair refugee distribution scheme. Poland and Germany have scrambled to each host more than one million people from Ukraine, according to the United Nations, while France — the EU’s second-largest member in terms of population and GDP — has taken in a little more than 100,000.
A meeting between state and federal authorities earlier this month was intended to bridge the growing divide. Nancy Faeser, the federal minister for the interior, announced more housing for refugees, but she stopped short of putting a figure on more money or outlining a plan for the months ahead. Those details are expected to come out of another state-federal meeting, scheduled for early November.
While the influx of asylum seekers has tapered since the surge following the outbreak of war, asylum applications remain higher than at the same time in prior years. The situation is a far cry from the German government’s assessment in mid-February when it said it saw “no indications of migration movements.”
About one week after German broadcaster, ntv, published that statement, Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We’ve already taken in more refugees than in the record year of 2015,” Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, told DW. “One goal of the Russian leadership is to target critical infrastructure and civilian centers to drive more people to flee.”
That worry comes atop the possibility of additional arrivals from Afghanistan, uncertainty in Iran, and Russians dodging the draft.
Germany and the EU have to be “prepared,” Knaus added.
While officials and aid groups in Germany say they are better situated to handle refugees than in 2015, when around one million arrived from the Middle East and parts of central Asia, they are still picking up the pieces from the COVID-19 pandemic, which put the education and medical systems on the front line. The energy crisis and historic inflation are also grave concerns, in both political and economic terms, although the higher prices have had the unintended consequence of stronger tax revenue at all levels of government, according to the Finance Ministry.
The cascade of calamitous events has led to a sense of “permanent crisis,” Glossmann, the Cottbus spokesperson, said.
A city forever changed
The former East German city has seen its fair share of upheaval in the decades since German reunification. Cottbus suffers from a reputation for economic inertia, and for serving as a hotbed for far-right and nativist activity.
Unemployment has come down considerably over the years, but at 7.2% in September it trails the nationwide figure of 5.4%.
The incoming mayor is from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) , but in the election earlier this month, the candidate from the far-right populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), took nearly one-third of the vote.
At the same time, migration has helped give city demographics a makeover. When Enas Taktak arrived from Homs, Syria, in 2014, less than 4.5% of the Cottbus population was foreign-born. Nowadays, non-Germans account for more than 1 in 10 residents.
The change is evident in the number of Arab groceries that have popped up in the historic city center, groups of young people chatting in Arabic and other central Asian languages, and women in headscarves doing their shopping at the outdoor market.
It’s “unfortunate” that the city announced its intention to halt refugee resettlement, Taktak told DW. The 24-year-old works part-time for the Refugee Network Cottbus (Geflüchteten Netzwerk Cottbus e.V.), which is one of the small aid organizations that the city has leaned on to fill in the gaps.
Those gaps, Taktak said, go beyond acute crises arising from successive wars and instability in the Middle East and now Ukraine.
“The state has to look at why resources are stretched so thin,” she said. “We all know the education system is bad in Brandenburg. That’s not because of refugees.”