Saarland's home secretary moved into a refugee hostel at the height of the refugee crisis. Klaus Bouillon's talks to DW about his experience dealing with the flow of people a year ago, and what he learned from it.
Deutsche Welle: Mr Bouillon, why was your presence at the refugee processing office in Lebach so important?
Klaus Bouillon: I was mayor of a large district town for over 30 years. During that time I learned that to get things done you have to be "hands-on." There is a difference between sitting at a desk in the ministry, 50 kilometers from the action, or directly witnessing what is happening on the ground. At first there was a total lack of infrastructure to cope with the refugees in Lebach. There were not enough toilets or sanitary facilities. Originally, the Saarland central refugee processing office had space for 1,370 people. But over 1,000 people arrived in one day. So then nothing worked anymore. Many people were just overwhelmed. In bureaucracy there is often a lack of decision-making power. Being on the ground enabled things to get done more quickly. Many people were also happy to see the minister taking responsibility for his decisions. It was good to be personally present because there was always something that had to be dealt with.
At one stage we ran out of transportation. There were simply not enough vehicles available for 8,000 people. So I convinced the armed forces to come. But when the refugees were standing in front of the buses and members of the armed forces started going through their bags, I asked them why they were doing this. At that rate it would have taken five years to get anywhere. Those responsible told me that according to regulations, no unchecked luggage is allowed on German army buses. So I dealt with it. This is why someone has to be present who is willing and able to make decisions.
Were there misgivings or any actual resistance to your hands-on approach?
From the beginning I said that I needed the armed forces. My argument was that before the army goes and helps in Mali, they may as well come to Lebach first. And then things fell into place. Of course there were also public discussions. But imagine a situation where it is 30 or 40 degrees outside and eight days into things, I started to organize the building of winter-proof halls. Some were asking if this was actually necessary, saying that it should stop, that it was too expensive. But this didn't interest me. At that stage it was clear to me that we were going to have problems in winter. But with the preparations we did, we didn't have any problems later. We were able to reorganize things incredibly quickly. Within three weeks we had got people through medical checks, had them clothed, completed the paper work and had sent them out into the community.
What did you have to fight for the hardest?
The distribution of refugees. The computer can deliver a cruel fate. For example, it decides that the first two family members are to be sent to Hamburg and the rest of the family to Munich. There were situations where families were going to be torn apart. While one mother was in the bathroom with two children, outside in the chaos the father was assigned to Hamburg, while the rest of the family was to be sent to Munich. They came to see me, because they knew that the minister was there. Of course I helped as much as I could. But after three weeks I also reached my limit, because I could have made a hundred exceptions a day. It's not humanly possible. You can't sleep anymore. That was a hard time. But wherever I could help, it felt good. And people were so grateful.
What did you find personally moving by being there on the ground?
I was moved by the desperation of many people who arrived with the first wave of refugees. After seeing many people who had travelled alone, many then arrived who had two or three children. It was difficult for me to see how women are treated. That's why I set up institutions for women only and we hired midwives. It makes you think, when you see how some men treat their wives. Or a husband refuses to allow his wife to be medically checked and there are cases of domestic violence. This is definitely going to create a problem with integration.
Were there times when you felt alone, when you had misgivings about Chancellor Angela Merkel's famous mantra on the refugee crisis: "We can do this"?
I didn't even have time to think about it. I was working with my helpers day and night in order to organize everything. But I had already said in state parliament that it was going to be a tough call.
How have your experiences with the initial refugee reception center in Lebach changed your views on immigration policy or your perspective on refugees?
From the beginning it was clear to me that we needed to get hold of apartments. If people are thrown into living in such close quarters then there ends up being aggression and it becomes difficult with integration. At first I was laughed at for demanding a special program for apartments. We offered money to private investors and advised local councils to take out long-term contracts. It took eight months until it was clear that the program was a success. This is how we housed 8,000 people. We are quite proud of the fact that we never had to put up people in a sports hall, school gymnasium or public building.
What needs to be improved with the current refugee and integration policies?
Things need to move faster, especially with language courses. Sometimes people have to wait six to nine months until they get into a course. This is simply too long. People sit around at home for too long and that's not good. In addition, we have to help people get out into the job market more quickly. In September we are going to run a trial project with the federal employment agency. The main focus of the testing procedures will be asking people about their preferences for what they would like to do and where they would like to work. The findings will be passed on, for example, to the chamber of commerce. This should speed things up with finding courses, doing skill assessments and finding jobs. This is the main area where we are stuck at the moment. In other areas things are up and running.
Now, a year since your hands-on experience, do you think the chancellor's "we can do this" mantra is still relevant?
I think we have already achieved a lot. It's feasible, but we need perserverance. We can only do it if we succeed as quickly as possible in integrating people and in particular getting them into language courses. There are a high number of refugees who do not have an education that is comparable to ours. Women in particular have no vocational training. We have to fix this. But in practice we have found, for example, that women come to the language courses and then go home at 11 a.m. because they say they have to cook. The man sits at home and expects his wife to cook. We need to insist on a consistent implementation of language courses. Apart from this, things are up and running. By the end of the year all the states will be interlinked. Now the focus is on integration. We need more language teachers, more childcare workers and more daycare places. It's achievable, but it will still take many years.
Klaus Bouillon, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, has been Saarland's home secretary since 2014.