On a sunny day last week, Saad, a teacher from Syria who made the treacherous journey by sea in a tiny boat, leaving behind a young family, is jostling along with hundreds of other refugees outside the grounds of the city’s Agency for Health and Social Centre in Moabit district. This is where Saad, his companions and many other refugees crowd around daily to first get themselves registered at the centre which then entitles them to arrangements to stay in flats, food and money to keep them going for a while. The crossing by boat across the Mediterranean with several of them squeezed into an 8-metre boat and the journey across the Balkans and the thought of his wife and two young kids in Damascus have left him physically and emotionally drained. It has been an arduous trek to Germany, especially from Serbia where they were stopped first and couldn’t get anything to eat for over 20 hours. And it is showing. Saad who was 58 kilos before starting from home lost 10 kgs in a little over three weeks. For a two-hour boat ride out of Syria, Saad paid 1100 dollars to those who smuggle them out, hoping to secure a better future for his family once he finds acceptance and work in Germany or Europe. His friend, Ramadan Asaad, a chef back home and a few other friends too fled war-torn Syria to Germany, leaving their families behind.
And the wait at the agency where the process of registering, then being given a number and later shelter and 400 Euros for two months – which can take up to two weeks is a test of patience for many of these refugees. And it is not Syrians alone who line up at the Agency – one of many such centres in Germany. There are asylum seekers from Iraq, Serbia, Africa, Afghanistan and strangely even from Bangladesh. Thousands have streamed into Germany and while many people have volunteered to take some of them in and also help out after initial hostility on the part of the far-right, the challenges to the state are huge. Not just in terms of housing for those fleeing their countries but to integrate them given the lack of skills or low skills of most asylum seekers. The United Nations reckons that at least 8,50,000 people will try and seek refuge in Europe this year and in 2016 and hundreds of thousands have already crossed into Germany – being unwelcome in the Balkan countries which are yet to recover after a bloody conflict years ago or in Hungary where authorities have clamped down on migrants aggressively. Many of the Balkan countries have tightened their borders to try and prevent the influx of refugees while Hungary has said it will build a barrier to prevent illegal migration from across Croatia.
Ironically, Germany- the world’s fourth-largest nation by GDP or national income needs more migrants – some hundred thousand annually considering that it has an ageing population. A 2014 study by the Institute for Occupational Health has projected that Germany would need net immigration of 2,60,000 annually on an average in the worst case or at least 18,000 people every year to keep growth going by 2030 as the population ages and leaves a gaping shortfall of several million in what has been a productive workforce. The economic powerhouse of Europe can take in more migrants – or those technically qualified to work in the country’s highly skilled sectors and to take care of the elderly but will have to soon face up to handling the wave of refugees in terms of equipping them for jobs, arrange to school for children and housing for families.
For now, even those sceptical of Chancellor, Angela Merkel have had to sober down — after she stepped in to support the refugees and declared that there would not be zero tolerance towards those who attack refugees. Some view this as an astute political bet by Merkel who they say is good at judging the prevailing public mood. And it has helped that many Germans have come out to extend support to these refugees – be it in Munich, Berlin or other federal states.
And that mood is visible inside the Agency for Health and Social Centre where volunteers from the Red Cross and other non-governmental agencies have pitched tents for those coming in – offering food to the refugees and chairs for the aged, besides women and kids as the men wait long hours at the reception centre. Outside on the pavement, a small group of Turkish volunteers distribute the flatbread from one of the many bakeries run by the Turks in the city.
But the wait inside the reception or registration centre can be frustrating. Saad says that last week two Iraqi men who had been visiting the centre for several days tried to jump off one of the higher floors of the Agency.
(The writer was in Germany on an invitation from the German Federal Foreign Office)