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So You've Made it to Germany: On the Ground in the New Refugee Mecca

In a matter of days Germany has transformed its reputation by welcoming thousands of migrants and refugees, taking in 20,000 people last weekend alone. We went to witness the atmosphere in Munich.
September 11, 2015, 4:10pm
Photo by Matern Boeselager

In just a week, a single photograph of a dead child has become iconic. The image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, who died en route from Syria to Europe — his small body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, his red T-shirt, his water-soaked shoes, and his twisted, lifeless arm — have come to represent all that is broken in Europe's response to the ongoing refugee crisis.

But likewise, in the last week, another image has emerged as an unlikely counterpoint to this: That of the good and grinning German volunteer — welcoming refugees with cheers and handouts at Munich's central train station.

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"Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here," goes one refrain, common among refugee greeters.

On Saturday, with the situation in Budapest appearing on the brink of collapse and thousands of migrants amassing along the Hungarian-Austrian border, Germany and Austria threw European Union regulations to the wind and opened their doors to the refugees. That evening, authorities in Hungary — who have made it abundantly clear than refugees are not welcome there — dispatched a fleet of buses to pick up migrants from across the country and move them to the Austrian frontier.

By the end of the weekend, a staggering 20,000 travelers had passed through Austria and into Germany.

Photos by Matern Boeselager

By mid-week, the pro-migrant euphoria at Munich train station had dulled somewhat and had been replaced with an air of calm urgency.

Around 5,500 migrants arrived in Munich on Wednesday. Each trainload was met by a well-practiced police unit that briskly encircled the new migrants and escorted them across the platform — past a cluster of ostensibly old-fashioned German bakeries selling soft pretzels, and towards a makeshift row of tents where volunteers performed basic medical checks.

One volunteer told VICE News that she had helped treat a man whose shoulders were both broken — because he had carried his disabled son through Hungary.

Related: 'This Is the Jungle': Calais Migrant Camp Now Includes a Church and a Nightclub

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Some migrants were moved immediately into local shelters. But most were put onto trains and buses heading out of town, to other parts of the country, according to Germany's internal quota system for distributing refugees between federal states. German cities are meant to register migrants on arrival, but Munich has given up on that; there are now too many people.

Red Cross volunteers, including several young nurses who had taken time off work, accompanied the ongoing trains to offer medical care.

Germany now expects 800,000 asylum seekers to arrive this year, the bulk from war-ravaged countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If these projections are accurate, the newly arrived migrants will total around 1 per cent of Germany's population.

The train station in Munich. Photos by Katie Engelhart.

One afternoon this week, a train pulled into Munich from Budapest's now infamous Keleti station — where some migrants have spent days in squalid and sweaty conditions.

Mohammed, a 15-year-old from Damascus, arched his neck to survey the crowd. He arrived in Munich nearly a year ago with his then 17-year-old sister, via Egypt and then a boat to Italy. He now lives in a home for orphaned children, and attends a special school for new refugees. He speaks fluent German and looks like any other young fashionable European teenager, in a zip-up sweatshirt and bold sneakers.

Mohammed said he often comes to the train station to see if he recognizes anyone from back home in Syria. In his pocket, he always carries photocopies of his residency papers, lest there is any confusion about his place here.

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There is order here in Munich. And due process. And train schedules.

It is a far cry from how things were just weeks ago, when many migrants were entering Germany through the southern town of Passau, packed like sardines into cars and vans steered by people traffickers. In late August, up to 850 refugees were arriving in Passau every day. Often, they were abandoned on the side of the road, or in secluded fields and forests.

Related: Disturbing Video Shows Migrants Being Thrown Food 'Like Animals' in Hungarian Camp

Passau residents told local reporters that they would sometimes wake up in the morning and go into their kitchen for coffee — only to see through the windows a dozen Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani refugees sitting outside on the lawn, wondering if they had made it to Germany.

In recent days, this smuggling activity has slowed. "Refugees don't need to use smugglers when they can make the trip on trains and buses for free," Michael Emmer, of the Passau police force, said. Now, just 100 people enter Passau every day. "But we are preparing for a time when this controlled immigration will end. Then, we will be back to the same situation as before," Emmer added.

Mohammed's copies of his German ID. Photo by Matern Boeselager

Germany is the new refugee Mecca, the migrant Promised Land, the final destination on a long and punishing road. The country is known for its relatively liberal asylum laws and its relatively generous allowance schemes. Asylum seekers in Germany can receive up to around 350 euros ($395) each month from the state.

But for many arriving refugees, 'Germany' is also a kind of fiction, a country where life is imagined to be sweet in some as-of-yet-unidentifiable way. A number of refugees told VICE News that they preferred the feel of Germany to, say, Austria — but didn't quite know why.

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Outside a large fairground on the outskirts of Munich that has now been converted into a temporary refugee shelter, 34-year-old Jawdat, from Homs, Syria, said he chose Germany because he knew his children would be well educated here, but also because: "I'm Sunni, but people won't ask me that in Germany. They won't ask what I am. I like that."

As Jawdat spoke, his 5-year-old son — who just days ago was rescued from a sinking boat between Libya and Italy — smiled broadly and blew kisses.

Jadwat's choice, in itself, is not surprising. Germany has long been a destination of choice for asylum seekers. What is surprising is that Germany has, in a matter of mere days, been able to radically rebrand itself — discarding its old image as a staunchly migrant-skeptic, or even migrant-phobic, state.

In July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously made a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee cry on national television when she said that she couldn't necessarily prevent the girl's family from being deported. "Politics is sometimes tough," said the notoriously stiff-lipped chancellor.

Months earlier, some 25,000 anti-immigrant, anti-Islam protesters had descended on Dresden to march in support of the group PEGIDA, which stands for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West."

Related: 'Refugees Will Break the Wall': On the Frontlines of Hungary's Immigration Fence

Indeed, in 2010, Merkel declared that multiculturalism had "utterly failed" in Germany.

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Now, all of a sudden, ordinary Germans who donate spare rooms to Syrians or organize makeshift language classes for asylum-seekers are celebrated on national television. Even German tabloids have devoted special pages to dispelling negative rumors about foreign migrants.

Meanwhile, an older German word, "fluchthelferin" (or "refugee helper") has reappeared in popular parlance. The term refers to people who helped East Germans flee from communist East Germany after WWII. Manyfluchthelferin were later awarded civilian medals and feted as national heroes.

Today, the image of these new fluchthelferin is pitted against more unsavory portraits: Of 100 miles of barbed wire fence being laid in Hungary; of 71 decomposing bodies found in an abandoned truck in Austria; of British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking of a "swarm" of migrants.

Photo by Katie Engelhart

Already, some German commentators are cautiously wondering whether the goodwill will last — particularly as the bill for receiving migrants climbs. According to one recent poll, about half of Germans worry that the refugee surge will overwhelm the country.

And what next?

On Thursday, VICE News asked Christoph Hillenbrand, the president of Upper Bavaria, how much money his region had set aside for mid- and longer-term resettlement and integration programs.

"We will settle the bill later," said an exasperated Hillenbrand. "The Bavarian budget is designed two years ahead… At the moment, we are spending a million euros a day on this effort and the trend is going up… We are talking about efforts that may well be beyond all our imaginations."

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These efforts will be harder still if the German government itself splinters. Recently, the leader of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel's coalition partner, described the decision to ease border rules as "wrong." "There is no society that can cope with something like this," CSU leader Horst Seehofer declared.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere also warned that the projected figure of 800,000 new arrivals this year "is too much."

Already, scattered far-right and neo-Nazi groups have made known their displeasure with the German approach: rioting outside of newly constructed refugee facilities.

In late August, hundreds of supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party demonstrated outside a shelter that was being prepared for around 600 asylum seekers in Heidenau, Saxony, and pelted police officers with firecrackers and rocks.

"It's repulsive how far-right extremists and neo-Nazis are spreading their hollow message," Merkel told reporters, of the incident. "But it's equally shameful how citizens — even families with children — support this by marching along."

There has also been a spate of arson and other attacks on refugee facilities. In April, a building in Troeglitz that was supposed to be converted into an immigrant shelter was firebombed. Earlier this week, police in Thuringia began investigating a "politically motivated arson" on a refugee shelter there.

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Wiebke Judith, a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Germany, said that there have been 340 attacks so far in 2015, which is double the amount from the same period last year. "It's definitely worrying. So far nobody has been killed this year," Judith added.

After the violent demonstration in Heidenau, private security guards at the city's reception center reportedly advised asylum seekers not to travel outside the security gates alone — or after dark.

Photo by Katie Engelhart

Now, Germany is working to process the thousands of people who arrive in Munich each day. Already, there are signs of system overload. Munich school officials, for instance, are apparently struggling to accommodate hundreds of new students in so-called "transitional classes," which offer German language and culture lessons to asylum-seeking children.

And not every arrival goes smoothly. On Thursday, 26-year-old Nesrin Abs stood quietly crying outside Munich station, dabbing her eyes and nose with a rough piece of paper towel as her two young sons, 5 and 9, sat wide-eyed beside her.

Nesrin said she had just returned from the town of Neu-Ulm, where her husband Mohammed has been living in a refugee center for several months. Nesrin and her boys arrived in Germany last week. They tried to join Mohammed — but were forced to return to Munich, where they had been registered.

Now, Nesrin and the children had no idea where to go or who to ask. They roamed aimlessly. When pressed, Nesrin said the boys were hungry.

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A few months ago, Nesrin explained, they were living comfortably enough in Aleppo. But one day, the family left the house for a few hours, and when they returned, armed men (Nesrin says she doesn't know who they were or who they were fighting for) were blocking the road. They told the family to turn around. And so they fled Syria, leaving everything behind. Eventually, Mohammed paid 5,000 euros ($5,600) to traffickers for four places on a boat to Europe.

The family then walked, on foot, through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, where Nesrin said they spent four days with no food in a refugee holding center.

Eventually, after some effort, a kind passerby helped Nesrin find a police officer who could figure out what to do with her. Before she and her sons boarded a bus to a local shelter, I asked Nesrin why she had chosen Germany. "I like Germany. The people are nice," Nesrin said. "I hope to stay forever."

Watch VICE News documentary, Seeking Refuge in Europe: Breaking Borders (Dispatch 1) here:

Matern Boeselager contributed to this report.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart