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2 January 2018updated 07 Aug 2021 9:16pm

How Germany’s refugee dream soured

As the far right rises, attitudes harden.

There is a moment in the play Get Deutsch or Die Tryin’, currently showing at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, when the harsh realities faced by many modern migrants hit home. The story of its protagonist, Arda, a young German-Turkish man, sets the scene. At a doner kebab shop, patrons order food in a foreign language. On the wall hangs a useless degree from a foreign university. In a back room, a young woman hangs herself; her wrists have also been slashed open. She wanted to make sure that she would die. “You are 18 and you know: you’ve lost,” Arda says later.

Powerlessness quickly turns into bad luck throughout the play, which explores the history of Turkish migration in Germany but also deliberately alludes to the struggles of refugees who have arrived in the country more recently.

In 2015, in an act of generosity unmatched in Europe, Germany opened its borders and allowed in nearly a million refugees from war-torn countries, including Syria and Iraq. At the time, many discussions within both Germany and the wider European Union revolved around how best to integrate the new arrivals and process asylum requests.

But Germany has since soured on the idea of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Ahead of last September’s federal elections, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party campaigned on a xenophobic and anti-immigration platform. Alexander Gauland, who co-founded the AfD in 2013, argued that refugees welcomed in by Angela Merkel imperilled the German way of life.

“We have to take our own interests into account, and taking in masses of refugees is not in the interests of Germany,” Gauland told the German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle in August, adding that the country was “not the world’s doormat”.

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Many Germans said they voted in the hope of keeping the AfD out of parliament, believing that the movement was short-sighted and would be short-lived. But the AfD surprised the pollsters and pundits, winning 12.6 per cent of the vote – the third biggest share overall – and 94 seats. It was the first time a far-right political party had entered parliament since 1949, when the Deutsche Rechtspartei won five seats.

The AfD’s success, combined with a worse-than-expected performance by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), disrupted the formation of a new coalition government. In mid-November, inter-party talks between the CDU, the Free Democratic Party, the Christian Social Union and the Greens collapsed.

“Refugee policy will stay, for the foreseeable future, a contentious topic in Germany,” said Christian Meier, a journalist at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Since 2016, Merkel’s focus has been on keeping the number of new refugees down, he said. “Regardless with whom Angela Merkel and the CDU will form a new government, she won’t abandon these kind of policies.”

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Repatriation statistics show that the number of refugees returning to their countries of origin has slowed. In the year to 31 October 2017, 26,188 refugees applied for voluntary repatriation, according to a spokesperson from the German federal office for migration and refugees. In the previous 12 months, that number was nearly double.

But this does not mean that refugees have become more content with life in Germany. In reality, many of them simply have nowhere else to go.

Real-life examples of the kind of struggles depicted in the Gorki production can be seen at a housing project for refugees, five kilometres away. Yosra, a schoolteacher from Syria, arrived in Berlin with her three children in September 2015, by way of Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.

“In the beginning, the government distributed funding for food, for clothing, for basic living,” said Yosra, who is currently living in a two-bedroom apartment near a prison yard (she asked for only her first name to be used). But the levels of support soon decreased, as attitudes towards refugees in the country hardened and Merkel’s authority slipped.

“Now there are many parties. One is with the refugees and wants to support them; the other is against them,” she told me. “They don’t like Syrians or Arabs at all.”

The reduction of services is subtle and is ostensibly part of a larger integration plan to cut support while allowing people to live independently.

New initiatives often cater to those well into resettlement, not those who need more basic, functional help. Last year, for example, a law was passed that allowed refugees better access to integration courses and pre-vocational training. Yet many of these programmes are supported by volunteer engagement, which is waning.

One of the biggest problems for many refugees is that German classes are no longer automatically available for free. Yosra cannot afford language courses because she cannot get a job – because she cannot speak German.

“Language is a very important requirement for the integration of people with a different cultural background,” Anne Ernst, the departmental manager for refugee support and integration at Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe, an NGO, explained. State-run language classes cost €3.90 an hour, of which refugees are only required to pay €1.95. The fee can be waived for any recent arrivals who began their course after 1 July 2016.

Yosra has less than half the required language credits to be able to compete effectively in the workforce. She secured the family’s current home by learning one phrase in German: “Please, I want this house.”

The situation is particularly fraught for single mothers such as Yosra, who need to work to support their family. Sometimes she can make it through the neighbourhood on what little German she knows and the English she speaks competently. But English doesn’t help in the workplace, where the native language is valued. “Now my plan, for when this is all over,” Yosra told me, “is to be in America.” 

Additional reporting by Benjamin Hiller