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Refugees in Passau

Nemanja Rujevic / wsOctober 30, 2015

Politicians call it "chaos," the media call it an "onslaught." But Passau's aid workers and police hardly complain. Despite the immense strain, they're managing the ongoing refugee crisis, reports Nemanja Rujevic.

Deutschland Passau Flüchtlinge Notunterkunft Paul-Hallen
Image: DW/N. Rujevic

Curious, a dog on a leash sniffs around between railway sleepers overgrown with weeds, while Melanie von Wagen glances in the direction of Austria. The teacher from Passau is not accustomed to this kind of view from the old bridge over the Danube River close to Achleiten: behind the police cordon, hundreds of refugees wait for hours in the cold of evening, until a sufficient number of places to sleep can be provided in one of Passau's emergency shelters. "During the last couple of days, roads have been blocked. To go home, we always have to pass through the police checkpoint," von Wagen says. "I'm frightened by what I see. There was a mother breast-feeding by the wayside; the children were running around. It was quite moving."

Her 12-year-old daughter Jantje is a daily observer of such scenes - at her secondary school, refugees have been accommodated in tents, because not all refugees arriving in the region can be housed in fixed shelters. "I gave the children some of my stuffed animals, and they were very glad," the girl says.#video#

The subject of refugees leaves its imprint on conversations in town, and at school as well: "Some say the police should send the people back to Syria. They say the refugees will change Passau, or that they'll cause the outbreak of World War Three. I don't really believe that," Jantje says. Her physical education lessons still take place regularly, in contrast to many other schools where gyms were, or still are, filled with camp beds

Still able to cope?

The local politicians speak of "chaos" and an "onslaught." "Mrs. Merkel, you've got to stop this!" urges CSU politician Josef Lamperstorfer, who is the mayor of Wegscheid, a community at the Austrian border. This can go on for another two weeks at the most, then the limit will be reached, he says. And he warns that the real winter is still to come. According to his deputy, it is only a question of time before the first baby dies of exposure.

On Thursday (29 October) alone, the five entry points in the Passau area saw the arrival of more than 6,500 people - slightly fewer than on previous days. The Bavarian state government claims it can handle, at most, 50 people per hour and per border crossing. That is ludicrous, say the Austrians, in view of the fact that umpteen thousands are coming through the Balkans. Reality has long since overtaken political considerations. More than a hundred buses per day are arriving from Vienna and other cities - they are simply announced, without anyone in Austria asking, "Are you guys in Passau still able to cope?"

Deutschland Flüchtlinge an der deutsch-österreichischen Grenze
En route to Germany: refugees at the German-Austrian borderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

For weeks, police spokesman Frank Koller and his colleagues have been working 12-hour shifts. Nonetheless, he believes the strong terminology used by the press to describe the situation in Passau is inappropriate: "I wouldn't call it chaos, but, of course, we are under a lot of pressure. This is an exceptional situation."

"Without volunteers," Koller continues, "the police forces would no longer be able to cope with this situation. If, at some point, those volunteers can't keep going, we will have a problem."

"Germany is a good country"

The electronic scoreboard in Passau's Dreiländerhalle - a multi-purpose indoor venue - displays two unwelcome announcements for the refugees: "No smoking inside. No Wi-Fi." The first problem is easily solved, because two designated smoking areas have been set up outside the hall. The second is more difficult. Police do their best to explain to the refugees that they can't just walk away and buy a German SIM card.

Ali is one of those who would love to make a call to Syria - his family have remained in Daraa. The route to Germany has been exhausting and dangerous, he says, but there is no way back: "My home country does not exist any more; Syria has disintegrated into six separate parts," explains the maths teacher. Now he has finally arrived where he wanted to go: "Germany is a good country. And the government here takes good care of us." Ali is virtually unaware of the heated debate within Germany about the refugee crisis.

Tonight, the Dreiländerhalle does not see a great deal of commotion. Only half of the giant area is covered with sleeping mats. Refugees lie down to rest, or fetch themselves cocoa and pastries from the serving counter. Whenever a particularly high number of refugees arrives from Austria, people are also accommodated here, in a venue which usually hosts concerts and other events.

Like hundreds of other Passau residents, Michael works as a volunteer, distributing diapers or serving tea. "They love black tea, lots of it. And sugar, too - to them, that's the most important food," says the 39-year-old with a laugh. As a member of the "Connected by Passau" Facebook group, Michael registers his name there whenever he is able to work one or several two-hour shifts. "Some volunteers study at the university during the day and come here at night. It's quite a strain, yes. But no one complains. It's fun to be able to help and to see how glad people are when they receive a worn-out coat as a present."

Can we make it?

It's the bigger questions, however, which are bothering Passau: Should there be an upper limit to the refugee intake after all? Will police officers be able to receive compensation for their overtime? Will there be sufficient funding from Munich and Berlin? And, first and foremost: When will carefree everyday life return to the Danube?

When Melanie von Wagen looks at the crowd, she feels torn. On the one hand, she feels that "if there was war here in Germany, I, too, would take my children and go away, looking for a better, peaceful life." On the other hand, von Wagen sees her town reaching its limits. Will Passau be able to cope? Yes, Passau can do it, she says - adding: I hope.