Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, an increasing number of poverty-stricken Roma have come from these countries to Germany. The city of Duisburg is struggling to deal with them, and residents are annoyed.
Half-eaten corn cobs, plastic containers and bottles lie strewn all around the building complex in the Duisburg district of Rheinhausen. The place stinks of urine and mold. A well-fed rat scurries past.
Between the trash and the puddles, some boys are playing soccer. Elderly women in headscarves and young girls watch from a safe distance, keeping an eye on things from their balconies, which are crammed full of laundry, carpets, refuse and satellite dishes. Cables dangle from the side of the building. The residents of what is known locally as the "problem house" illegally siphon off their electricity from the tower in the courtyard.
"Don't walk too close to the wall," said Rolf Karling, of the group Citizens for Citizens, as we go past the house. "You might get hit by a flying object, like a coffee cup or a dirty diaper. They're used to chucking their rubbish out of the window."
Karling himself is wearing a camouflage-patterned Belgian army jacket. "The people here have respect for uniforms," he said. But today even Karling said he has trouble getting into the interior courtyard. "Go, go," a little kid shouted while giving Karling the finger. Anyone who dares to enter the grounds of the complex "In den Peschen 3-5" is eyed with suspicion by the men and boys who hang around in groups there. Most of the people who live here are Roma gypsies.
Rampage by the radical left
The mood in the neighborhood around the "problem house" has been tense ever since a recent meeting when Roma residents were attacked by masked men armed with batons and tear gas.
Karling was invited to mediate between the residents and Roma, but none of the new citizens were represented. No contact was possible because none of the residents speaks German, Karling apologetically said. Troublemakers from the far right had been expected, but not from the left. The anit-fascist group Antifa organized the attacks on Facebook.
Duisburg has become a haven for people from eastern Europe ever since the closure of the Krupp steel plant forced original residents to move away and caused rents to fall in the city. Today, about 7,000 to 8,000 Roma live there, Karling estimated. But not even the landlord of the "problem house" knows how many people are living there.
The landlord said he had to install fire doors "because the residents were being threatened online with being burned alive." Many fear that Duisburg could soon be mentioned in the same breath as Solingen, Mölln and Rostock-Lichtenhagen, where foreigners died in fires started by right-wing extremists.
Fear of negative headlines
New doors were recently installed on one side of the house. "The Roma should feel safe," Karling said. Citizens have organized night patrols to protect the Roma. At one point, members of the left-wing scene showed up and sparked conflicts.
Police only began routine daylight patrols since the attacks; at night, officers are permanently on the scene. "Before, they always said: Nothing has happened here. We have no legal recourse," said local resident Hans-Wilhelm Halle.
Halle's wife, Helga, is no longer able to stand the noise, the dirt and regular disturbances. "They use the front garden as a toilet, and at night there are so many rats running around," she said. For months, she has not left the house in the evening. The Halles said they have already planned to move, even though the house was to have been their retirement home.
City and state plans
The state government in North Rhine-Westphalia has announced a residential supervisory act, which would control massive overcrowding in any particular area. Another approach by the city is to offer Roma housing in areas with fewer immigrants in an effort to promote integration.
Elisabeth Pater, from the municipality of Duisburg, is responsible for helping children from immigrant families. Like most residents, she appreciates the Roma situation and said their actions are quite understandable.
Pater has experience with integration issues; in Duisburg, every third person is an immigrant. She said education will be key to bringing people together. "These people have lived under even worse conditions. We need to support the children and help them get ready for life in society," she said. Moreover, she added that there's now a need for unskilled workers without qualifications. The people need to learn to stand on their own two feet.
But critics doubt the good intentions of the immigrants in the "problem house." They say the Roma just want to take advantage of the German social system. "Germany provides quite a bit of child support: 184 euros each for the first two children, and from the fourth child parents receive 215 euros ($287)," said Halle.
Dreading the new year
Politicians in Berlin need to wake up, according to Sören Link, mayor of Duisburg and member of the Social Democrats (SPD). He was able to get SPD party head Sigmar Gabriel and chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück to make a brief appearance in Duisburg, but so far nothing more has happened.
Duisburg, a city burdened with debt, seems overwhelmed with the situation. And soon, the situation could become even worse. EU citizens from Romania and Bulgaria have been able to live anywhere in the EU since 2007, but starting next year they will have full rights to work as well. Conversely, they would also have the right to full unemployment benefits.
Duisburg residents like Karling and the Halles are looking ahead with concern to January 1, because they expect to see even more Roma on the streets of their city.