Two years after the height of the refugee crisis, many migrants are still learning language skills and integrating into their new homes

How the refugee crisis unfolded in a town in western Germany

A changing mood

The refugee crisis remains a challenge - for refugees themselves, but also for helpers and the authorities. A visit in the German town of Siegburg.

Matthias Hannemann
By Published on : 2017/12/14 Latest update : 2017/12/18
Two years have passed since dramatic images depicting the refugee crisis of 2015 went around the world. The situation remains a major challenge – for refugees as well as for volunteer helpers in communities across Germany. One of those communities is Siegburg.
The refugee crisis of 2015 took Europe by surprise and could not have been addressed without the help of volunteers
Summer of change
The refugee crisis of 2015 took Europe by surprise and could not have been addressed without the help of volunteers

Bernd Lehmann was on holiday in southern Europe when his boss, the mayor of the German town of Siegburg, called him in August 2015. At the time there had been no signs indicating what would later go on to become a restless autumn for him and for many. All that changed with this one phone call.

Lehmann wasn't the only person to receive such an important phone call. Mayor Franz Huhn had also received a significant call himself earlier and was asked to jump into motion as refugees started flooding into Germany on a daily basis. Arrival centers for migrants across the country were suddenly operating way above capacity and so local communities were asked to gear up to welcome refugees within a matter of days.

This is why Mayor Huhn had to call Lehmann while he was on holiday and ask if and how he would be able to help in providing emergency accommodation for at least 150 unplanned, unexpected migrants. As Siegburg's co-head of Central Service Delivery, Lehmann had to come up with a plan, not only because he had to but also because he wanted to.

Lehmann says he accomplished his Herculean task because he received help from many volunteers, as was the case throughout Germany at that time. The city of Siegburg with its population of 40,000 people is nestled among the hills of the Rhineland and so far had 280 refugees, who had either been living in private accommodation rented by the city or were housed in a building that has previously been owned by the German military. There was no space for the 150 additional new arrivals.

Bernd Lehmann had to come up with accommodation solutions for hundreds of migrants
Siegburg gears up to welcome refugees
Bernd Lehmann had to come up with accommodation solutions for hundreds of migrants

By the time the first busloads of refugees arrived on the eve of August 25, not only had the community managed to hastily put together a dormitory inside a gym used by two local schools, it had also arranged translators and doctors to assist the exhausted refugees. Locals had meanwhile donated clothes and bags, trying to help wherever they could. Mayor Huhn himself was also there to welcome the migrants, who mainly came to Siegburg from Syria and Iraq.

Under these circumstances, an additional 110 beds were also set up within a short amount of time. Besides taking in refugees from overcrowded initial reception centers of the state, Siegburg was also being allocated regular refugees who would likely remain in Siegburg for longer. A previous school was therefore converted into refugee accommodation for this purpose. The city also bought a vacant office building and built three additional facilities from scratch. At the time, it was a pressing matter to build up the town's capacities to deal with the refugee situation.

Two years on, things have changed. The first arrival center at the gym has long since closed. Hardly any refugees arrive in Siegburg these days, as the town continues to keep up its refugee quota. Nevertheless, even two years after the height of the refugee crisis the number of migrants in Siegburg remains at a high level: in November 2017, there were 610 migrants living there. 413 out of those have had their refugee status confirmed so far, and only 250 have managed to find new homes in the private sector. The rest are still housed in municipal facilities.

The initial enthusiasm in regards to welcoming refugees has waned, says Lehmann
More migrants in store for Siegburg
The initial enthusiasm in regards to welcoming refugees has waned, says Lehmann

Bernd Lehmann shares all these facts and figures on a particularly cold and rainy day – a day, when terms like "upper refugee quota" keep floating in the news as the German government's ongoing coalition talks continue in Berlin. It is also the day that Lehmann hears about another round of migrants expected to hit his city – much to his surprise.

"This came out of thin air," Lehmann comments. He's referring to family reunifications, which are beginning to be rolled out in Siegburg. Lehmann knew that they would eventually commence but hadn't been given a time frame yet. Suddenly, there are a lot of further roofs over heads that he's been put in charge of. Lehman thinks that there's no way around putting them in larger facilities for the time being considering the overstrained housing situation in Siegburg.

"The times when apartments were leased out to the local government in order to house refugees are also long gone. That initial sense of euphoria in regards to addressing the migrant situation has faded," Lehmann says.

"You mustn't misunderstand this. There are still many volunteers trying to help refugees, such as teaching German or doing their paperwork or securing internship placements for them. The general sense of wanting to help is still there. There's no overall change in mood towards any negative attitudes."

The mood regarding refugees changed after the assaults of New Year's Eve 2015 in Cologne
Change of mood
The mood regarding refugees changed after the assaults of New Year's Eve 2015 in Cologne

Lehmann added that if volunteers decided to throw in the towel after two years of dedication to the cause it is usually a case of personal exhaustion rather than anything else. However, he added that the events of New Years Eve in nearby Cologne two years ago did also leave a mark.

That night, thousands of men reported to be of North African and Arabic origins were celebrating on the square outside Cologne Cathedral. Many women were harassed and sexually assaulted. The situation intensified when reports of the event only surfaced days later, with the police and media both being accused of trying to play down the significance of the incident.

Since then things have changed. Police reports and media coverage of violent incidents involving male refugees have both since started to take on a decidedly different tone. Xenophobic views have gained ground, as the initial culture of welcoming migrants has somewhat faded into the background. Politicians are finding themselves under increased pressure as well.

Isolated events like the brutal rape of a woman on a camping trip in the nearby Siegauen meadows made national headlines. The perpetrator, a refugee from Ghana, was housed in a state-run central accommodation center in neighboring St. Augustin up to the point of his arrest. The surge in terror attacks carried out by Islamists across Europe also played a role in changing the overall mood. These exceptional incidents distorted the overall public view on the vast majority of peaceful refugees in Germany, making their integration considerably more difficult.

Migrants report that dealing with German bureaucracy is particularly difficult for them
Disappointment and Disillusionment
Migrants report that dealing with German bureaucracy is particularly difficult for them

The subject of the Cologne attacks is a particularly pressing issue for members of the local refugee initiative Lohmar/Siegburg as well. The initiative, which has been in existence since the Balkans' wars, currently assists a communal reception center that houses 60 people, half of those being single men. 

Director Christa Feld draws attention to the psychological consequences for the refugees. Two Syrian migrants had felt so stigmatized by the events of that New Year's Eve that they decided to pen an official statement distancing themselves from the perpetrators of the incident. About a hundred others signed the document.

"At first, the refugees here were quite keen to take part in social events like Karneval or St. Martin's Eve. But in Cologne, many migrants have withdrawn from public life ever since (the incidents in Cologne)," Feld explains.

She also points out that many refugees are already feeling disillusioned with their new lives in Germany; they appear to be overwhelmed with German bureaucracy, which at the height of the refugee crisis actually failed to work in their favor, resulting in a long period of time passing between their initial arrival in Germany and the ultimate processing of their asylum applications. This can be felt throughout the region.

Most of the refugees had arrived here before the so-called Balkan route was closed down in 2016 and before the European Union had reached a refugee deal with Turkey. However, at the beginning of 2017, a third of the 610 refugees in Siegburg remained in limbo, with their asylum processes still open.

Family reunions remain a contentious issue in the aftermath of the migrant crisis
Families kept apart
Family reunions remain a contentious issue in the aftermath of the migrant crisis

Those refugees who appealed against negative asylum decisions have found themselves in new waiting loops. That’s also the case for recognized asylum seekers who attempt to reunite with their spouses and children by bringing them to Germany. "Families living here depend on the cooperation of the Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese embassies," – that's according to refugee helpers working for the Catholic social aid organization SKM. "But those consulates are absolutely overwhelmed. The waiting periods can take months."

This eats away at many refugees who by now have been waiting for years to have their statuses and their rights established. One Syrian refugee, who is finding himself still living alongside 90 other migrants from across the world at a large and frugal dwelling, keeps waiting to find out about his family's outlook. At first, he was somewhat luckier than other migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015, with his asylum decision taking only a total of about nine months. However, he was only granted subsidiary protection, which presently does not extend to include his family waiting in Jordan.

He lodged an appeal but has had to wait many months until finally receiving the green light for his family reunion. But he is still waiting for his family to join him, as his wife and children still need to get an appointment at the Germany embassy in Jordan to have their documents processed.

"Is difficult," he says, using his rudimentary German skills.

"My children aged two years in the meantime."

With one look at this man's face you can tell how his life has turned into a never-ending waiting room. He's pale, tired and even his smile looks labored. He isn't the only one by far who has to deal with this bureaucratic quagmire while simultaneously still processing the traumatic experiences from his journey to Europe. There is little to distract him in his life. Although his status means that he could be employed, the Syrian man lacks the qualifications as well as the linguistic skills needed to be hired. Back home in Syria, he says he used to get by as a seasonal worker.

Apprenticeships open doors into the German labor market - but only if refugees qualify
Fit but unable to work
Apprenticeships open doors into the German labor market - but only if refugees qualify

There is a lot of frustration around the topic of employment. It begins with differences in everyday work life between Germany and the countries of origin of the refugees. Neither the refugees' expectations nor those of the helpers are met. 

Bernd Lehmann, however, stresses that there are a number of success stories to offer a glimpse of hope. He knows a pharmacist and an architect from Syria who came to Germany in 2015 using the Balkan route. They were lucky to have their Syrian qualifications accepted in Germany.

"We also have a number of young refugees who are on their way of getting a valid school finishing diploma here, and there are at least six migrants I know of that have been accepted for apprenticeships."

Apprenticeships in particular enable young refugees to plan for a career instead of relying on temporary jobs in places like fast food restaurants. But it isn't always easy to find placements in apprenticeship programs for these young migrants. The first step, says Lehmann, is to "get them into a position whereby they would be able to complete an apprenticeship."

His biggest challenge in this area is making sure that before embarking on apprenticeships young migrants have valid educational qualifications, as apprenticeships in Germany are built on both classroom study and practical exercises and require a certain minimum of academic standards to be fulfilled before starting off.

"It takes time to get them up to speed, and with some of these refugees we - as a society - will have to embrace the fact that they will probably never be able to enter the workforce here and therefore will have to rely on government support in the long run. This is something we're more aware of today than we were two years ago," says Lehmann, adding that it takes more than just basic literacy to enter the German labor force.

Migrants turn to social housing departments for long-term housing solutions - amid great competition
Competition for social housing
Migrants turn to social housing departments for long-term housing solutions - amid great competition

Another growing challenge that is now more apparent for those assisting refugees is the emotional burden of dealing with refugees whose asylum applications have been rejected, says Lehmann. In Siegburg, more than 150 refugees were rejected for various reasons, including such reasons as coming from a safe country of origin.

These refugees are currently "tolerated" as refugees but not as asylum seekers, and their long-term prospects remain unknown. Their presence will have to be financed by local governments now. Earlier, when their cases were still being processed, they were financed from central funds.

Lehmann himself avoids the question of how the city can afford the expenses. It's no secret that many communities are struggling, even without taking into consideration paying for refugees. Siegburg's mayor, who stresses that his municipality has been "coping pretty well" with these additional costs, says that refugees "tolerated" under their rejected asylum status cost roughly 1.5 million euros this year. That is in addition to the general services offered by the local government, such as schooling, kindergarten placements or investing in social housing projects.

Social housing could potentially become a hot topic in the local community since the advent of many refugees. Cologne's refugee coordinator Hans-Jürgen Oster says that there already is dire need for social housing without taking the migrant situation into account. With approximately 10,000 refugees being housed in Cologne alone, long-term planning is of paramount importance:

"We have to catch up in such densely populated areas when it comes to this subject, or else we'll end up with rivalries among various sociopolitical groups, and we don't want that to happen." 

More migrants are expected to arrive in Europe in the next years, using new routes
Uncertain future
More migrants are expected to arrive in Europe in the next years, using new routes

Meanwhile in nearby Siegburg, Bernd Lehmann highlights the growing pace in deportations of migrants who have run out of all appeals. One day earlier he said goodbye to a family from the Balkans.

"It started this summer with the deportations. The family I saw yesterday must be about to get on the bus that will take them back home right about now," Lehmann said. It is a sore subject for him:

"The children of that family had been going to school here for years and had started to plant their roots here. That's why such decisions need to be taken much sooner."

Lehmann adds that the way German bureaucracy treats refugee families can sometimes be exceedingly "inhumane – no matter how righteous the procedure might be, objectively speaking." However, there is little he can do about it: it's not the local municipalities that get to decide on matters of applying refugee policies.

Many of the migrants that first arrived in Siegburg two years ago have been granted asylum. For them, a new chapter has started – one that deals with integration. Suddenly there's a new set of challenges after all the initial issues of finding a home, learning basic German language skills and finding their way around the bureaucracy. Lehmann knows that there are still many hurdles ahead for these refugees as well but remains hopeful: having gone through all these motions, Siegburg's refugee population will at least be able to help those migrants that are still bound to come in the future.

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