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Germany

Germany's 'Lampedusa' copes with refugees

Arson attacks, demonstrations, complaints: Many towns and cities have felt uneasy about the huge influx of refugees in 2015. Not so in Passau, even though most refugees entering Germany crossed the border there.

Passau is one of those German cities that look especially good on postcards: quaint cobblestone streets, Mediterranean flair and a baroque cathedral. In summer, tourists walk along the promenade next to the Danube and Inn rivers. But this spring, the picture perfect idyll got some unexpected visitors: Early each morning thousands of totally exhausted people began arriving in the city. Mothers carried babies on their arms; fathers attempted to blend in and look like normal tourists. Busses, operated by human traffickers, were regularly transporting large numbers of refugees to the German border, where they would then drop them off - at least until the border patrol began stopping them from doing so in September.

Passau is in southeastern Bavaria. The Austrian border is a 30-minute walk from the city center. For many refugees heading to Germany along the Balkan route, Passau was the end of their odyssey. In spring, the police were registering about 600 people a day. By autumn, that number had exploded, sometimes reaching as many as 10,000 a day. Passau itself has a mere 50,000 residents.

Some of those residents now refer to Passau as "Germany's Lampedusa," in reference to the Italian refugee island. No other border town in Germany has seen as many refugee and migrant crossings in 2015. Yet, despite the enormous burden, Passau has adopted Chancellor Angela Merkel's motto: "We can do it."

'It's going well'

Politicians across the country have continuously spoken of the chaos created by large numbers of refugees this year. Media outlets report on veritable stampedes and overwhelmed helpers. Passau Mayor Jürgen Dupper, a member of the Social Democrat party (SPD), admitted to DW that his city was, "experiencing an exciting and fast-moving situation, one that demands a lot of commitment." But he is clear in his summary: "By and large, it's going well."

Passau - Flüchtlingslager

Passau mayor Jürgen Dupper

For refugees, Passau is a stopover, a breather on their continued journey to further German destinations. In Passau, they are registered and can get something to eat and drink. There are nights when the police gather refugees from the sidewalks and take them to emergency shelters. Most of the shelters are in large auditoriums that normally host concerts or students taking exams.

Police working around the clock

The federal police are responsible for registering the refugees. In September, following the chancellor's open border announcement, they were pushed to their limits: 13 hour shifts, seven days a week. Nonetheless, Mayor Dupper emphasizes that there was never any sign of chaos in the city. Not even in October, when Austrian authorities single-handedly decided to escort busloads of refugees through their country and straight to the German border.

Ulrich Gönczi, a 23-year-old police officer, has been working in Passau since September. He hands out food to refugees, ensures public order and sometimes he is just there to talk. "It's pretty demanding," he says, and at times unorganized. Many scared refugees speak to him in English, saying, "Don't beat me." Gönczi tries to calm them and tells them that German police aren't going to use truncheons and water cannons against them.

The refugees also bring the world's problems to Gönczi and his colleagues' daily routine - problems that cannot be forgotten when the uniform comes off at the end of a shift. There is the man who was shot while fleeing and arrived with an open wound. Or the parents who watched as their two daughters drowned in the Mediterranean. "When you hear things like that it really hits you," says a visibly moved Gönczi. Many of his colleagues on the force feel the same. Not only is all of the overtime a strain, so are the human tragedies.

Pragmatism instead of complaints

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Polizei Passau

A policeman registers incoming refugees at a shelter, as the number of illegals grows

That a little city like Passau can deal with such large numbers of refugees seems quite astonishing. In other cities along the Austrian border the attitude is less relaxed. In October, Freilassing Mayor Josef Flatscher, of the Christian Social Union party (CSU), wrote an urgent letter to the chancellor, essentially telling her: "Enough already," warning that the mood in the town, just across the border from Salzburg, could worsen as thousands of refugees pour into Germany from there.

Passau Mayor Dupper, on the other hand, is not an alarmist, he's a pragmatist: "Whining doesn't help," he said. He does not believe in the concept of refugee limits. "We are going to have to deal with the fact that ever more people are coming here. We just need to get on with our work."

So far, no asylum shelters have been set on fire in Passau. And according to police statistics there has been no change in the number of burglaries this year. Still, there are residents who are concerned and have questions: Is my job safe? Is there enough space for all of us to live? What will happen to the school system? Dupper thinks that these are legitimate questions. But he has no definitive answers. He only knows: Municipalities have to quickly integrate these people.

Passau: Crisis proven

The mayor's confidence is apparently contagious. Hundreds, if not thousands of residents are working as volunteer helpers. There is a "wonderful consensus" between the police, the city and the volunteers. One of those volunteers is Ahmed Sarbani. He came to Passau as a refugee himself years ago. Now he translates for other refugees - from Afghanistan, Iran and Bangladesh. He says that of course there are unfriendly people in Passau, but the mood is generally very open.

Mayor Dupper says that even on the most frantic of nights he has no doubt that Passau will master the refugee situation. Although, when he sees refugees with their "backpacks, full of enormous hope," he asks himself: Will we be able to fulfill those hopes?

In any case, he remains optimistic about the prospects of providing immediate emergency help: "In Passau we have had a lot of practice in dealing with challenges," he says. Passau has indeed proved itself in a crisis: In 2013, the entire historical center was submerged during the worst flood to hit the city in 500 years. Dupper says that may be the reason Passau is handling the refugee crisis so well now.

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