Germany has agreed to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees who will allowed to stay for at least two years. They've been carefully chosen and will be introduced to German life via a two-week crash course.
It is, of course, the civilian population of Syria that is suffering most as a result of the two-year civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents. More than two million people have already fled the country, and a few of them will find a temporary home in Germany.
In March, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich announced that 5,000 Syrian refugees would fly to Germany in groups as soon as possible. The first of these arrive on Wednesday (11.09.2013).
According to an interior ministry spokesperson, the ministry has worked closely with the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR and other aid organizations to agree on who may come to Germany. They'll be chosen from the refugees who have ended up in Lebanon, where over 700,000 are registered with various support organizations. Staff examine "the relevant information in the registration papers, contact the people and ask them if they would be prepared to go to Germany," says Stefan Telöken, UNHCR spokesperson in Germany.
In making the decision, three groups are particularly taken account of: one is humanitarian emergency cases, such as the seriously injured, orphans or single mothers with children. Refugees with links to Germany - for example, with family members here or with knowledge of the language - are also preferred, as well as Syrians who have special qualifications and who could help rebuild their country at the end of the conflict.
These groups will get residence and work permits initially for two years - which means they are not asylum seekers. As Telöken told DW, "This is expressly not a resettlement program." The refugees are expected to return to their country when it becomes possible.
Arrival in transit camp
The 5,000 Syrians will initially spend two weeks in Friedland and Bramsche transit camps where they'll be introduced to their new lives in Germany.
"The people will go through a voluntary introductory course which lasts a week," explains the man in charge of the Friedland camp, Heinrich Hörnschemeyer. "In the morning we'll be trying to teach them a bit of German. By the end of the week, they should be able to introduce themselves and ask the way. In the afternoon, we'll be giving them information about Germany."
The newcomers will learn something about German history and they'll find out about German schools, the health system and the various official institutions they'll have to deal with.
Hörnschemeyer says the refugees are used to conditions which have virtually nothing to do with what they'll experience in Germany, and their brief stay in Friedland is supposed to give them a bit of help with starting out. After two weeks, they'll be distributed to the various 16 states.
Differences between the states
All 16 of the German states will be taking refugees - how many depends on the size of the state and the health of its tax revenues. The largest number - at least 1,060 - will go to Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, which has already said it is prepared to take a further 1,000.
Meanwhile, just 50 will end up in the smallest state, Bremen, although there are no refugee hostels there. Spokesman Bernd Schneider told DW, "We're currently talking to the churches who are either seeing if they have accommodation or they're asking their members if they can offer somewhere to stay." Bremen's 50 are particularly vulnerable: sick, injured, or traumatized. "Various organizations have been mobilized and have said they want to make a big commitment," says Schneider.
Criticism from refugees groups
Pro Asyl, the main organization in Germany campaigning for refugees' rights, says that it's not enough to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees. Its deputy director, Bernd Mesovic, says, "That's certainly not adequate compared to the extent of the refugee catastrophe in the Middle East." In addition, he criticizes the way the 5,000 were selected: "Primarily refugees who were in Lebanon and registered with the UNHCR on a certain day were chosen." That, he says, excludes too many people who are in real need.