Opinion: Germans aren′t overwhelmed by refugees, German bureaucracy is | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.10.2014
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Opinion: Germans aren't overwhelmed by refugees, German bureaucracy is

Around 300,000 refugees are expected to come to Germany this year. The states and municipalities are already calling it an emergency situation. But many of their problems are homemade, says DW’s Felix Steiner.

The Germans have a reputation around the world for being first-class organizers. But that reputation is taking a major hit. Not just because the Bundeswehr is struggling to fly soldiers and equipment from A to B, but also because the usually reliable German bureaucracy appears to have reached its limit faced with the orderly registration and accommodation of 300,000 refugees. The talk is of "chaos" and a "state of emergency." The media is showing images of mattresses laid out in large halls, tents used for emergency housing, and washrooms and toilets in refugee homes that literally stink to high heaven.

Numbers are relative

Albert Einstein taught us that everything is relative, especially numbers. The number 300,000 seems larges when it's about new refugees to Germany this year. But when compared to the more than 50 million people who are currently displaced around the globe, it's actually quite small. When 300,000 refugees enter a country of 80 million people, you have a ratio of one refugee to 250 people. Lebanon currently has a ratio of one Syrian refugee for every fourth person. Now that's a lot! The figure of 300,000 seems so large to Germans because it is 10 times more than the number of refugees who came here five years ago. But Germany has also experienced a much larger number: almost 450,000 in 1992 at the height of the war in the Balkans. And back then, the country didn't fall apart or see its prosperity crumble!

Deutsche Welle Felix Steiner

DW editor Felix Steiner

So, what is going on right now in Germany? One issue is the lunacy of federalism: every state, every district, and every city has to accept people according to a fixed system - no matter what the actual situation on the ground, no matter if there's already a dearth of housing or if local unemployment is extremely high. Some mayors and social organizations try to get political by demonstratively erecting a tent city and inviting every camera team in the country to come in and film it. Look at this! This is what it'll be like if we don't get any help! Even if the tent city doesn't turn out to be necessary, as was the case in the city of Duisburg.

Lengthy bureaucratic procedures

That, of all places, the wealthy state of Bavaria is making headlines with its hair-raising conditions is no coincidence. Of course it has something to do with the state government, which has, for months now, closed its eyes to the foreseeable increasing number of Syrians coming to Germany. But first and foremost it has to do with the fact that the number of asylum seekers arriving in Bavaria is especially high: the railway lines from Italy and southeastern Europe, via which many refugees enter the country, end in Munich. People arriving there have to undergo the complex initial registration process before they can be transferred to other regions of the country.

The Germans are the world champions of organization - and that's exactly where a good part of the problem lies. There are exact legal definitions of what constitutes a refugee versus an asylum seeker. An asylum seeker, for example, is anyone who arrives in Germany on their own - even if they come from Syria. Asylum seekers have to go through an acknowledgement procedure that takes at least a month, and they have to do it even though all Syrians are currently being granted unlimited permission to remain in Germany. And as long as the acknowledgement procedure is underway, the asylum seekers have to live in collective housing centers - even if there are 1,000 empty three-room apartments available.

Local citizens often happy to help

The frequent local protests against setting up such collective housing centers may seem reprehensible. In addition to fears that neighboring properties could decrease in value, there is also the more diffuse fear of having so many foreigners concentrated in one place. These protests don't mean that Germans are generally against accepting refugees.

It's actually just the opposite: the latest opinion polls show that, given the reports coming from Syria, more than half of all Germans would support accepting even more Syrian refugees. It shows a willingness to help that becomes tangible almost anywhere refugees arrive in Germany: local citizens form aid groups to care for the refugees and collect donations on their behalf.

Germany is not overwhelmed in the fall of 2014; just German bureaucracy. Shorter acknowledgement procedures for refugees from war-affected regions, decentralized accommodation, provision of German language lessons and the faster granting of work permits would all be steps toward rapid integration. No one really believes that the refugees will be able to return home quickly. Well-integrated people who are grateful to be living here are not a burden, but rather a boon to German society.

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