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For many Europeans, doubts about widening the welcome to refugees (+video)

Though refugees are genuinely welcomed by many in Europe, there is a strong undercurrent against open-door policies, even in Germany.

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    Refugees arrive at the main train station in Munich, Germany, on Monday.
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Lamia Zerrin has been living in a tent with her two small children at Republique square since the end of July because private housing is too expensive and she can’t get any answers from the state on a public housing request she submitted in 2009.

Ms. Zerrin, who has French nationality, says her request will undoubtedly be delayed now that so many migrants and refugees are arriving with housing demands. On Wednesday, about 200 people arrived in France from Germany, with about 1,000 expected by Friday.

“It’s really scary,” says Zerrin. “I’m not against France helping people, but they first need to help the people who are already here.”

Zerrin is not the only one wary of the reality of tens of thousands of new residents in Europe. As the European Union tries to share the burden of the largest mass migration since World War II, its plan to enforce a quota system has been creating tensions across the 28-member bloc.

Even in countries like Germany, which is perhaps the most receptive to asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere, there are already signs of a public divide over how much commitment, financial or political, Europeans are willing to make.

'Welcome to Germany'

Images from France and Germany over the weekend were nothing less than heart-warming. Hundreds gathered at a Munich train station to wave balloons and call out “Welcome to Germany” amid cheers and clapping. Thousands gathered across France to demand the government do more for asylum seekers hoping to reach Europe.

If any country has unleashed a humanitarian spirit thus far it is Germany, where the majority of asylum seekers have headed this summer. The country recently said it expects to process 800,000 asylum petitions by the end of the year – four times more than last year – and can afford to accept half a million refugees each year.

At Munich’s Central Station, volunteers arrive every few minutes to donate clothes or food. The train station has become the entry point for thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom were stuck in Hungary over the last week as the country closed its borders. Some 20,000 people arrived over the weekend.

In a recent poll commissioned by German broadcaster ARD, 88 percent of people said they would donate money or clothes while 67 percent said they would volunteer to help the asylum seekers.

Just 'hype'?

Colin Turner, the spokesman for the volunteers at the train station, says he worries about how long the outpouring of goodwill can be sustained.

“This new welcome culture that we are celebrating here in Munich and in Germany, it can’t stop here. The process will go on ... as refugees become new citizens,” he says.

Marcel Berlinghoff, an historian at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück, already wonders if the public’s support is just “hype.”

In the ARD poll, 37 percent of respondents agreed that Germany could handle the current flow of refugees. Twenty-two percent said they should take more and a third said they should take less.

French public sentiment, likewise, is not monolithic. On one hand, Airbnb-like programs launched across France in the last week, connecting refugees with families willing to host them for days or months. The Singa organization has already registered 600 housing offers across the country. President François Hollande called for accepting 24,000 refugees over the next two years and pro-migrant gatherings sprung up over the weekend across the country.

But recent surveys suggest support could be superficial. A recent Oxoda poll showed that a majority of those surveyed are opposed to the French government’s decision to accept more refugees. The same poll showed that 61 percent were in favor of France sending ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State, suggesting that the French public is more comfortable with handling the refugee crisis from outside French borders than within.

Scapegoating

But like it or not, France – like Germany – will take the brunt of an EU Commission plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Greece, Italy, and Hungary across most of the 28-member EU.

Like many parts of Europe, French reticence to accept more refugees stems partly from the country’s complex history with immigration.

“Immigrants have always been the scapegoats in France, and the government has not always had a responsible discourse on immigration,” says Mathieu Tardis, a researcher at the migration and citizenship center within the Paris-based think tank IFRI.

Keeping anti-immigrant or populist sentiment at bay will be a challenge for both France and Germany. Far-right groups in Germany have already virulently protested their country’s leading role in accepting asylum seekers, with a rise in hate speech, arson, and physical attacks.

In France, the anti-immigration rhetoric has largely been led by National Front leader Marine Le Pen, but it has hit mainstream politics as well. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is considering a 2017 presidential bid, recently called for an end to the Schengen zone and compared Europe’s migrant inflow to a “leaky tap.” Several mayors have said they will only accept non-Muslim migrants into their communities.

One issue is the increasing distinction of what type of migrant deserves Europe’s help. Mr. Berlinghoff says that “old reflexes” are already reappearing in Germany. As politicians convince the populace to take in refugees, they are drawing lines between economic migrants and refugees, between those who are “legitimate” and those who are not.

“It is a political discourse that is half welcoming, half blocking,” he says.

The difference between a migrant and a refugee could be problematic once France and Germany begin placing people in state-subsidized accommodation, says Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, the spokesperson for Paris’s housing rights organization DAL. He says that while the state technically has enough space to deal with the demand, those considered refugees will probably find housing relatively easily while economic migrants or those without French papers could be waiting a long time for help.

“I’m pretty worried,” says Mr. Eyraud. “There are already a lot of people on the street.”

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