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Refugees: a furniture store serves as 'transit zone'

It is a microcosm of Germany: a transit zone, hotly disputed elsewhere in the country, has been set up, residents commit themselves to the cause, and the mood is changing subtly. Daniel Heinrich reports from Freilassing.

At some point, Georg Grabner had had enough. A man in his mid-50s, he works as district administrator in Upper Bavaria, close to the border with Austria. In theory, it's a nice job. Towns in the area are called "Prien," "Traunstein" or "Bergen"; the Chiemsee, Bavaria's largest lake, is just around the corner, and cows gaze with a panoramic view of the surrounding Alps in the background.

Everything changed when border controls were introduced in mid-September.

Freilassing, the first town on German soil after the Austrian border, at peak times sees the arrival of 15,000 refugees per weekend.

That's the equivalent of the population of the small town.

Having such crowds of people registered at the main railway station was deemed impossible, and so District Administrator Grabner rented, without further ado, an empty furniture store in the town's industrial area. "At the time, neither the federal police nor I knew whether that was the right decision to make," Grabner told DW.

The new transit zone

There's space for 2,000 people inside the empty halls. In contrast to open-air camps, this interior "transit zone" is warm and dry. Initially, refugees are registered here by police officers. Then they receive a medical check-up, explained Grabner. And there is even a clothing store for those who arrive dressed in T-shirts and slippers only.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Freilassing Transitzone

District Administrator Georg Grabner visits the converted furniture store.

"They get a meal and something to drink, and afterwards they're bussed to the railway station," Grabner added, where they continue their journeys on board chartered trains, in order to be distributed to reception centers all across Germany.

Despite the large crowds, everything is run in an orderly fashion. A briefing is held twice a day. The district administrator shrugged his shoulders: "We're working around the clock. Refugees are arriving, no matter whether they do so during the daytime, at night or on Sundays. There's no difference."

Without volunteers, nothing would work

In the meantime, the German armed forces have arrived on site as well and are helping, in collaboration with the police and the charities Red Cross and Caritas, to distribute food and carry out registration procedures. However, those tasks could not be handled without help from volunteers.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Freilassing Transitzone

Markus Hohenadel has been doing volunteer work for weeks.

Markus Hohenadel is one of them. Originally, he had planned to begin his media management studies in Würzburg in October, aiming for a Master's degree. Now, the 23-year old is in charge of an aid organization called "Freilassing Helps." Markus has been helping for five weeks, day in, day out: "We provide departing refugees with care packages. They usually contain cereal bars, bread rolls, drinking water, some fruit."

And it's a back-breaking job: "During the first couple of weeks, we were on duty around the clock, 24 hours a day." District Administrator Grabner was full of praise for his volunteers. At the same time, he couldn't fail to notice that they've reached their limits: "Our relief organizations usually help in emergency situations. They're not designed for permanent engagements lasting for weeks, or even months."

Grabner had a clear message for politicians in Munich, Berlin and Brussels: "In the long run, we will not be able to keep this operation going. The federal authority has to bring in full-time staffers."

The mood changes

Talking to the locals, one realizes that people here have been longing for outside help for some time already. There is a general feeling of powerlessness - a feeling that people have simply been "forgotten" by "the politicians." Many refuse to comment, afraid of being publicly labeled right-wing. Very few are prepared to give an honest opinion. If they do, they want to remain anonymous, like a man in his late 40s with whom DW talked in a pedestrian zone: wearing a black shirt and frameless spectacles, and sporting a neat moustache, he didn't look remotely like a right-wing hooligan. While his outer appearance was inconspicuous, his statement left no room whatsoever for ambiguity.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Freilassing Transitzone

This sticker calls on politicians to "seal up the borders."

He was terrified of the future, especially with regard to his children: "Nothing will be the way it used to be. A lot of things will change. We will live together with strangers, and we will feel the effect in our purses and in our culture. All those crowds of people who are coming to Germany, coming to Europe now - this will definitely leave its mark on society as a whole."

The district administrator voiced similar concerns, although his choice of words was more diplomatic. The current situation, he said, could be kept under control somehow. But Georg Grabner primarily was also worried about the future: "If the subsequent integration of refugees does not work, we're going to have a real problem in this country." There was, he concluded, no upper limit for granting asylum. One thing, however, was clear as well: "Germany cannot embrace the whole world."

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