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15 February 2016

What I learned while visiting refugees in Germany

The German attitude puts other EU member states to shame.

By Mary Honeyball

A toddler gave us an inquiring look, trusting that we wouldn’t cause any harm. His mother was more careful. Their long journey had obviously taken its toll, but now they were safe in a newly created shelter for unaccompanied women refugees and their children in the Bavarian capital Munich.

The child and its parent were fortunate to have been taken in by a newly created project for unaccompanied women refugees and their children. Run by an organisation called Condrobs it is located in a converted power plant in Munich’s grand central area and provides board and lodging for around 100 women and children.

I, together with four other MEPs from the European Parliament Women’s Rights Committee, spent three days last week in Munich visiting refugee accommodation and discussing the situation with the state authorities and NGOs

The concern shown by all levels of government in Bavaria for the welfare of the refugees and asylum seekers who arrive daily in their thousands was apparent right from the start of our visit. Unlike other parts of Europe, Munich has not shied away from taking in refugees, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria with smaller numbers from Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. This is, after all, the city whose people actively welcomed 18,000 refugees arriving at the railway station in September last year.

Of the 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers who came to Germany during 2015, a staggering 71,000 went to Munich, a daily rate in excess of 2000, a figure which has exceeded 3,500 a day at peak times. Munich’s population is 1.4 million. Bavaria as a whole has taken in more refugees and asylum seekers than any other German state with the exception of North Rhine-Westphalia, due in large part to its geographical location on the German-Austrian border. Hungary’s decision to close its borders has only added to the burden carried by Munich and Bavaria.

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The refugees and asylum seekers coming into Munich have been welcomed with compassion and there is a well ordered and efficient system for their care. The German attitude puts other EU member states to shame. Far from closing off access in the way Britain has shamefully done, Munich and, I believe Germany as a whole, has made every effort to do the very best they can for those fleeing war, danger and violence in less fortunate parts of the world.  

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This was especially apparent in the Bayernkaserne refugee centre, a former barracks designated surplus to requirements and subsequently taken over by the government of Upper Bavaria. Although still looking very much like a military installation, the barracks have been turned into a welcoming and well run shelter catering for stays of up to six months. After arriving at an initial reception point in Munich, which caters for about 200 – 250 incomers every day, the refugees and asylum seekers are provided with food and clothing and given their first medical screening. Interestingly, much of this work, including that done by doctors, is carried out by volunteers.

Following this stage, the refugees are apportioned across Germany, though many stay in Upper Bavaria. They then go to the Bayernkaserne where they receive further medical screening, a social services assessment and are given some ‘pocket money’. Food is provided as are educational and youth facilities, including sports areas. There is also a special family house with a café reserved for women and children.

Separate provision for women, a major concern for a delegation from the European Parliament Women’s Committee, is very important. Although the number of women refugees and asylum seekers is increasing, the majority are still male. Those responsible for the Bayerkaserne as well as representatives from the other state authorities we talked to, all recognised this. In addition to the reasons male asylum seekers flee their country of origin, women leave to escape domestic violence, honour killings and forced marriage. During their perilous journey they may well fall into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers as well as being raped and assaulted. A number will either be pregnant when they leave or become so while travelling.

It was commendable to discover that the state authorities at all levels in Bavaria including the Minster of State and Head of the Bavarian State Chancellery, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior and the Chief of Police all not only wanted to ensure the refugees were well treated but also recognised that special provision is required for women. The basics, such as separate sanitation facilities for women and men, were in place at the centres we visited and there seemed to be some level of childcare. Female interviewers and interpreters were harder to find, though efforts are being made to address this.

Integration into society, learning German, finding employment and settling down, is bound to be a major challenge for both the refugees and asylum seekers and government. In Via, a Catholic organisation providing integration assistance to women and families, showed us ways in which this could be done, having had many years of experience in delivering such provision.

The only cloud on the horizon came from the state government who feared that too many refugees would lead to opposition from the local people. Given the good work currently being carried out, it would be regrettable if the state government gave into this kind of thinking. Munich is a beacon for the rest of Europe and will hopefully remain so for as long as the current crisis continues.