"Black asylum seekers haul luggage for 1.05 euros per hour" - It's a headline that has caused indignation throughout the country - and casts light on the reality of refugee life in Germany.
It was most likely intended as a publicity stunt by the city of Schwäbisch Gmünd in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. A PR stunt which seems to have backfired badly: the city has been under the media spotlight after it employed asylum seekers to help rail passengers with their luggage - for the payment of 1.05 euros ($1.39) per hour.
Social networks, readers' comments in the local newspaper, as well as the email in-box of Schwäbisch Gmünd's mayor - are seeing a lot of traffic, with accusations ranging from racism to neo-colonialism.
Au contraire, says mayor Richard Arnold of the conservative Christian Democrat Party (CDU) - the aim was to solve two pressing problems at once. The first is caused by the city's train station, which is undergoing serious construction work, forcing travellers to cross tracks via a large, temporary metal staircase - a daunting challenge for those carrying large pieces of luggage.
That gave Arnold the idea of asking local asylum seekers whether they were interested in giving a helping hand with the luggage - enabling them to establish contact with the Gmünd citizens and become involved in some form of activity. Immediately, 10 refugees from different African countries, as well as from Afghanistan and Pakistan, volunteered - despite the 1.05 euro "salary" per hour. That's the amount the German social welfare law for asylum seekers permits.
Integration through luggage services at the train station
What seems to have fired up the debate is a report in the local daily newspaper with pictures that showed the mayor in a white shirt, posing with the asylum seekers while handing out straw hats.
"That thing with the straw hats - that really wasn't necessary," says Arnold, looking back on the case in an interview with DW. But he maintains that the original idea of the project was a good one.
"It's my intention that everyone who lives in Schwäbisch Gmünd is a part of it. And our refugees are a part of it, too," he says.
Shortly after the project drew hefty criticism, Germany's main rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, withdrew from it.
"The exact nature of the working conditions has just now come to the attention of Deutsche Bahn," the company said in a statement.
The debate that makes Indian refugee Deepak Singh sad. He worries that in future, people who would like to help refugees might refrain from doing so. Singh had to flee from India. His father was persecuted for political reasons and later died in prison. In 2011, the 32 year old arrived at the asylum seeker's center in Schwäbisch Gmünd.
Seven people in one room
Singh knows what living without anything to do in little or no space is like.
"We lived with seven people in one room," he says.
Seven people who didn't know each other before and didn't have anything else in common - besides all being refugees.
"It was not easy. Some want to sleep at 2AM. Others want to smoke inside the room, but I don't smoke", Singh tells DW.
But the worst thing, he says, is the feeling of being useless, unable to do anything - nothing to occupy yourself with, no social interaction, and housing that lies miles away from the next city center. Such is the reality of many refugee camps in Germany.
But Deepak Singh got lucky. After a few months, the founder of the local refugees initiative "Arbeitskreis Asyl" ("Asylum Work Group"), Manfred Köhnlein, made him an offer. Singh could help out at a local facility for people with disabilities, driving sick people to the doctor's, making conversation, taking them for walks. Five times per week, five hours per day, and all that, too, for 1.05 euro per hour.
"It's because of that job that today I've got it all. I have my residence permit, I have friends, and I can speak German. That was very, very important", Singh says, looking back.
These days, he has a job at a garden center and takes evening high school classes to get a secondary school qualification that is recognised in Germany. After that, he wants to go on to university.
Asylum seekers: banned from work for nine months
Upon seeking asylum in Germany, refugees are banned from taking up a regular job for nine months. According to German law, asylum seekers doing work like that which Deepak Singh did, or hauling suitcases at Schwäbisch Gmünd railway station cannot receive more than 1.05 euro per hour.
Bernd Mesovic of the human rights pressure group "Pro Asyl" is therefore demanding the law be abolished. He says it's discriminatory. Besides, he says, society would be losing out on valuable resources during the time in which asylum seekers are forced to do nothing.
"It's simply impossible to put someone on hold for two years and after that say: now, let's continue. You can't park a human life," Mesovic says. He suggests that asylum seekers should be offered integrative activities which help them not to lose their qualifications.
And working for 1.05 euros per hour, he said, is not an integrative activity but is in fact beneath human dignity, no matter how well-meant the gesture might be.
"Equal conditions also mean equal pay," he says.
Besides, there is always the risk of a regular job being filled with the significantly cheaper refugees - thereby exploiting their situation, he says.
CDU mayor demands discourse over cooperation
Manfred Köhnlein has been involved in refugee work for 28 years - a time which has gained him a rather pragmatic approach.
"Theoretical clamouring" won't help anyone Köhnlein says. While not stepping outside the legal boundaries, he wants to continue to help refugees find jobs - accepting meagre salaries in return for an actual occupation.
Mayor Arnold, too refuses to be knocked off his general course - despite angry emails and bad press. Instead, he challenges his conservative party members to come up with new immigration policies.
Those, however, are unlikely to be sanctioned by his party anytime soon. Extended work permissions for asylum seekers in Germany - the CDU doesn't want to hear about it. The same holds true when it comes to Arnold's demands to close down official housing for asylum seekers and, instead, help them board in private apartments in the city centers.
As long as the law doesn't see any changes, the people of Schwäbisch Gmünd are set to continue working with the options they have. And if the current attention that this city of 70,000 people is getting helps trigger a debate over how refugees can live together with the residents of a city - all the better, Arnold says.
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