Can Germany Cope with the Refugees?

Germany’s Response to the Refugee Situation: Remarkable Leadership or Fait Accompli?

a report by Matthias M. Mayer in Newpolitik, Bertelsmann Foundation, May 2016, available at
Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in temporary housing at the former Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, February 2016
Gordon Welters/The New York Times/Redux
Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in temporary housing at the former Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, February 2016

In June I visited Tempelhof Airport in the heart of Berlin, once a showpiece of the Nazi regime and the site of the Berlin Airlift of 1948–1949. The airport stopped operating eight years ago; but in December, with eight hundred Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and other “unofficial immigrants” pouring into the German capital each day and municipal officials confronting an acute shortage of places to shelter them, Tempelhof became Berlin’s largest refugee camp. Four cavernous hangars have been converted into holding facilities for 1,300 people, including five hundred children. The camp exposes both the successes and failures of one of the most daunting social experiments in German history: absorbing the 1.1 million refugees who flooded into this nation of 80 million in 2015 alone.

Maria Antonia Kipp, a spokesperson for Tamaja, the Berlin firm that the government has hired to run the shelter, led me through Hangar 6, which houses 540 mainly Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees. We walked down corridors lined with spartan, twenty-five-square-meter units formed by white plywood screens, each containing four double bunk beds, sleeping eight people. Arabic-speaking security guards were making the rounds as well. Although it was eleven in the morning, many refugees were asleep in their beds; others milled around the corridors, played cards on benches, helped themselves to cups of sweet tea from metal dispensers, or fiddled with their smartphones. The refugees are free to come and go as they please, but a sense of aimlessness hangs over the camp. With the exception of a handful of refugees who have found volunteer work, “nobody has a job,” Kipp told me.

Most prospective jobholders need to show proficiency in German. Though the government subsidizes language courses, achieving the level necessary to hold a job can take a year or more. In addition, only refugees considered likely to get political asylum—mainly Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans—qualify for the free education. (Fewer than 50 percent of Afghans have had their applications for asylum approved, only 10 percent of Pakistanis, and almost no refugees from the Balkans or Eastern Europe.) “The problem,” Kipp told me, is that the government “basically treats them all as long-term unemployed people.” The country, she said, was fine at “meeting basic needs,” but was giving many of the refugees little hope for the future.

At a phone-charging station I met Mohammed Dalush, a twenty-one-year-old university student from Damascus who fled Syria a year ago. After a months-long journey that included beatings, robberies, and detentions in smugglers’ basements, he arrived in Berlin in December. He had been waiting to be assigned an apartment or a group home in Berlin for six months. But…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.