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Refugees

Asylum policy debate intensifies in Germany

Residents of Berlin are fighting a new home for asylum seekers with xenophobic rhetoric, while refugees in Munich are staging hunger strikes. Both sides of the asylum debate are becoming more vocal in their protests.

Some residents in Hellersdorf, a district in Berlin, have been increasingly worried of late: about home and property values, about peace on their streets, and about the well-being of their children.

They don't want asylum seekers to end up living in their neighborhood, and their arguments against a new residence for asylum seekers are becoming increasingly xenophobic. A few weeks ago, residents of another Berlin neighborhood collected signatures against establishing emergency accommodation for refugees. Such buildings are desperately needed, because the number of refugees in need of help in the German capital has increased since last year and now stands at around 6,000.

Even politicians of the major parties fan the flames when it comes to giving the cold shoulder to foreigners, said Bernd Mesovic from the asylum seeker's organization Pro Asyl in Germany.

"Certain mayors, in Essen or near Lübeck for example, are really aggressive on this subject," Mesovic told DW. "Some politicians float the idea that there could be problems in the areas where the asylum seekers are meant to be brought."

Problems relating to crime are an example, and Mesovic said that members of Germany's right-wing NPD party use this as a reason to push the discussion further. Right-wing extremists mingle at meetings of residents' organizations to recruit supporters.

Bernd Mesovic

Pro Asyl's Mesovic says Germany underestimated refugee numbers

Hatred of foreigners not a marginal issue

It is well known that in Germany, asylum policy is a touchy subject and xenophobia is on the rise. According to a study conducted in 2012, more than a quarter of Germany's 80 million people harbor xenophobic tendencies.

The study was conducted by the social psychologist Elmar Brähler along with other scientists for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a political think tank with ties to Germany's Social Democratic Party.

"In the former East German states, xenophobia is very widespread", Brähler told DW.

He said more than half of Germans in the former East Germany wish that foreigners would get sent home, because jobs are hard to come by there. Brähler added that one reason is due to the fact that East Germans have less contact with foreigners. In the western part of the country, Germans more often have regular contact with foreigners through work, friends, or family, he said.

But it's not just the Germans whose resentment about the country's asylum policies is growing. The other side is also developing a harsher tone. Refugees are raising public awareness about limitations on their personal freedoms, and protest initiatives are becoming bolder.

Through his work at Pro Asyl, Mesovic knows that Iranian refugees, for example, who fought for democracy in their native country, won't let themselves be reduced to victims in Germany.

"It's an interesting development. The young, engaged Iranians see themselves as activists for democracy here as well," he said, referring to the fact that they feel unjustly treated in Germany.

March on Berlin

The suicide of an Iranian asylum seeker, who hanged himself in his apartment in early 2012 , marked a turning point. Other asylum seekers responded and began to get organized. A protest march from Würzburg to Berlin - a distance of over 400 km (250 miles) - drew attention last fall: the activists called, among other things, for an end to the residency requirement that forbade asylum seekers from leaving certain areas assigned to them by the authorities.

"What we experienced last year was a movement of previously unknown proportions," said Mesovic about the march.

Around 90 refugees made headlines at the end of June for setting up a camp in the middle of Munich and beginning a hunger strike. They called for the recognition of their asylum applications, though the police cleared their camp after a week.

Mesovic believes the explanation for the tense situation is clear: Germany has underestimated the number of asylum seekers.

"Plans were made for a very low number of asylum seekers on the basis of historic data," he said. "These were accurate as of four years ago. Back then, there were about 30,000 to 40,000 asylum seekers per year. But this year it could climb to 90,000."

Residents of the hunger-strike camp in Munich

The camp of the Munich hunger strikers was cleared after a week, but it drew attention to their cause

That's no reason to dramatize the situation, Mesovic added, saying the number is far from the extremely high numbers seen in the 1990s, but he says the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees failed to get enough personnel involved.

The result is refugees who wait over a year for an answer regarding their asylum application. During this time, their freedom is severely limited. They often live in isolation and lack the ability to determine their own fate.

It's beneficial to refugee agencies that the discussion regarding asylum seekers is coming into public focus and that a dialogue is taking place. However, the organizations are also calling on politicians from all parties not to abuse the subject for their own purposes as part of the upcoming election campaign.

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