Germany takes a gamble on refugees but can't do it alone: Nahlah Ayed reports

As a new bulge of refugees coming up through the Balkans begins arriving in Germany, concerns about how the country is to absorb the growing ranks of refugees is increasing, writes Nahlah Ayed.

Germany glad to show 'different' face by accepting refugees, but concerns grow

A young refugee waits for a train at the rail station in Freilassing, Germany, on Friday. (Kerstin Joensson/The Associated Press)

In the crowd of people facing Platform 25 of the Munich central train station, Dr. Evelyn Baur watched quietly as a group of asylum seekers took some of their final steps towards becoming her potential neighbours.

The German — indeed, international — television coverage of the thousands of arrivals in Munich had been wall to wall. This was, after all, history in the making, unprecedented.

Dr. Baur had watched closely, then ultimately decided to come down in person.

"I think it's our reality now. And I should see it … with my own eyes. We have to think how we (can) help," she said.

"It's a great chance, and they are welcome now, and we are very glad to show a different face," Baur added, in reference to the Germany of the Second World War.

But she does wonder whether such an influx will also cause problems at home.

"I think it's a house in a storm now. And I hope the house will resist."

This week, as a new bulge of refugees coming up through the Balkans begins arriving in Germany, the country — perhaps in a role some describe as the conscience of Europe — remains a singular exception in its decision to take in a record number of asylum seekers who have trekked across the continent.

To be sure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under internal pressure and in the face of European alarm, has had to backtrack slightly from her initial come-one-come-all approach to the influx.

A migrant holds a banner reading "Mama Merkel help us" in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
And on the eve of an extraordinary EU summit, she is once again calling on other nations to help share the burden.

"Germany is willing to help. But it is not just a German challenge, but one for all of Europe," she said this past weekend.

"Germany can't shoulder this task alone."

It is looking increasingly likely that EU members will agree to take in refugees on a voluntary basis, as opposed to quotas, though not in the proportions necessary to deal with the inordinate numbers already on European soil.

Meanwhile, refugees and economic migrants — some of whom come carry pictures of Merkel, or wear T-shirts with her likeness — are still arriving in Munich. They are coming in huge numbers, possibly one million by the end of the year.


No matter what is decided by the EU, Germany must now reckon with the consequences.

Dr. Baur is sympathetic. A psychiatrist, she plans to offer her services to what she predicts will be a cohort of refugees traumatized not only by the wars they fled, but by a harrowing journey to get to her city.

But there's more to worry about.

"There are concerns … the civil peace, (whether) we can keep that," she said.

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a designated shelter for refugees in Wertheim, Germany, on Sunday. Some 330 beds had already been set up in the hall. The circumstance what caused the fire are unclear. (Rene Engmann/The Associated Press)
From the start, along with the applause greeting refugees at the Munich train station, there have been incidents of arson at refugee centres and impromptu protests.

At one centre, Merkel was heckled by protesters calling her "traitor" for letting in what are largely Muslim Arab refugees.

Many have volunteered their time to welcome refugees in Munich and other parts of Germany, to help them get registered and receive medical help, and house them until they can support themselves. There were so many donations of clothing and supplies, they were being turned away.

But as they've watched their popularity waver in recent days (benefiting right-wing parties), members of Merkel's ruling coalition and her own party have complained. So have members of an allied party in Bavaria, where most of the refugees are arriving.

'Suicide of Europe'

Merkel's party also receives daily complaints from ordinary people worried about jobs, and about the country's finances being stretched.

Others raise security concerns, focusing on a report that one of the refugees in a German shelter may be linked to ISIS.

On the platform, among those applauding, one man watching the arrival unfold called it "the suicide of Europe." He would not give his name.

Also on the platform that day was a local politician who knows a thing or two about Germany's less-welcoming side. Marian Offman, a local municipal councilor who is Jewish, has long had to fend off neo-Nazis and their racist taunts.

He also knows the challenges Germany's economy faces — aging workforce, shortage of skilled workers in some areas — that could conveniently be addressed by the refugee influx.

"We need these people. We need these people," he told CBC News, adding that he is proud of the way Germany has handled the refugees.

Migrants hold a banner reading "Merkel" in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
"I'm Jewish and for me, of course, this is a very special problem, refugees. But the other problem is we will have maybe too many refugees here," he added.

"For the politics, it will be very hard to convince the population not to be against the refugees."

It is a bewildering thought for asylum seekers, many of whom insist they are not looking for handouts.

What do they say in response to the concerns? I asked Aladin, a medical student from Damascus who arrived in Germany last week with his mother after a harrowing trip.

"We are just looking for a new chance, a new beginning," he said.

"We don't want anyone to give us money. We want to make our money … I want to be a very big doctor. Maybe I'll be an inventor. Maybe."

His mother, a teacher, is also optimistic.

"As Muslims, we accept all religions. And we have no problem with any religions, thank God .… we are all brothers."

So at Hungary's fence, on the roads in Serbia, or in the confusion of the cornfields at the border between Croatia and Serbia, it is Merkel's words they retain and covet: "If we start having to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergencies, then that isn't my country."

It is such words that keep the asylum seekers walking.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.