Some small German towns want to host more refugees. So why can't they?

Advocates say Germany needs to update a 67-year-old refugee policy that assigns larger numbers to overtaxed cities and fewer to dwindling towns.

Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP
A mother warms the hands of her child in a tent at the central registration center for refugees and asylum seekers in Berlin on Jan. 4.

Situated at the foot of the Harz Mountains in northern Germany, the town of Goslar thrills tourists with its winding cobblestone streets and thatched timber homes. But under the surface of its picture-book charm lies a demographic time bomb.

Goslar’s population of 50,000 is dwindling by about 2,000 people a year as young people leave for better opportunities in cities. Faced with an uncertain future, Mayor Oliver Junk contends that the way to revitalize the town is to accept more refugees.

"The refugees that come can profit our country," Mr. Junk says. "They are not a burden, but rather an opportunity."

But standing in his way is a German law dating back to 1949 known as the "Königsteiner Schlüssel," or Königstein Key. Designed to fairly distribute the financial burden of refugees, it requires Germany to relocate them among its 16 federal states and their cities according to population and tax base, but not available space. 

Refugees who are granted asylum are randomly relocated through an electronic system called “EASY” that does not give states, cities, or towns a say. That means large, wealthy cities like Munich took 15,000 of Germany’s 1 million refugees in 2015 while Goslar was entitled only to 400. 

The challenge of distributing refugees comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel is under sharp scrutiny about how many more refugees to accept. German authorities are turning away at least 100 refugees a day at the Austrian border. Meanwhile, immigration advocates contend that asylum seekers can help slow the decline of Germany’s population, which the UN estimates will fall from its peak of 82 million people in 2002 to 74.5 million by 2050.

To critics like Junk, the entire system is an outdated remnant of postwar Germany that fails to address current conditions – and can make an already fraught process more difficult. 

Struggling cities

The 1949 law, which was created to accommodate postwar refugees, has come under fire from cities that have plenty of money but limited space. North Rhein-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state in which Cologne is located, takes nearly 22 percent of the 1.1 million refugees that entered Germany in 2015. Germany’s wealthiest state, Bavaria, whose capital is Munich, has to accept 15.8 percent of all refugees. The geographically small but densely packed city-state of Hamburg took in more refugees last year (2.53 percent, or about 25,000) than each of four states that are more than 10 times its size.  

And many large German cities already have severe housing shortages, according to a recent study by the Institute for the German Economy.

"There is not enough low-priced accommodation for everyone," says Monika Steinhauser, director of the Munich Refugee Council, an organization that provides aid and legal services to refugees. "Every year, Munich grows by 30,000 people already … which is quite a lot."

Refugees who end up in Munich often spend months in makeshift camps in reception centers, unable to find housing even after they are granted asylum. And they receive little assistance because service providers are often stretched thin, say officials.

"Not many of our volunteers are willing to help refugees find housing," Ms. Steinhauser says. "They’re often struggling to find it for themselves."

Meanwhile, homes sit empty in less prosperous areas of Germany such as the Harz Mountains in the north, the Black Forest in the southwest, and large stretches of the east.

"The richer a city is, the more it can do for refugees," says Junk. "Yet large, wealthier cities also have a shortage of housing, and students take the affordable living spaces already."

Playing by the rules?

The rules for refugees need to be better adapted for individual circumstances, says Katrina Stamm, legal adviser of refugee law for Diakonie Deutschland, the charity arm of Germany’s Protestant church.

Under current law, refugees in Germany must live in a reception center for as long as their first six months, even if they have family members living nearby. Rare exceptions are granted in hardship cases. 

The policy leads to a slew of double registrations. Some refugees ignore their initial placements and instead head to the regions where they already have family or a community, then re-apply.

Ms. Stamm says the policy will be tightened this year, partially in response to the violent assaults against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, in which 10 of the attackers were revealed to be asylum seekers. Asylum procedures will be interrupted if asylum seekers do not go to the assigned center.

“When asylum seekers are registered for the first time, they should be asked if there are special links to certain cities and areas which have to be respected under human rights law, core family members, handicapped relatives and so on,” she says.

Ferry Pausch, managing director of the German Foundation for Integration, says municipalities should have a stronger say in the number of people they accept. He says they are more aware of local economic and social conditions than the federal government.

Mr. Pausch calls for a decentralized system that cooperates with the states, and appoints a large number of lawyers who can make decisions on the refugees’ cases throughout Germany.

"The municipalities know very well how many people they can accommodate,” he says. “It should be a system that’s pushing and pulling at the same time, so that on one hand you give them the data of the refugees, but then on the other hand you have municipalities seeing how much space they have and what they can do in terms of integration.”

While Pausch is not in favor of dumping refugees in rural Germany simply because of the extra room, he believes smaller cities – where large German companies are often based – can provide ample opportunities to them.

As 'EASY' as it sounds?

Stamm says that better refugee distribution depends on how efficiently the asylum process works. An asylum seeker cannot receive permanent accommodations until his or her application has been approved. There were only 392,000 applications received in Germany in 2015, but 1 million people have been registered in “EASY." Yet an additional 600,000 people are waiting for an appointment just to apply for asylum.

Lack of resources is part of the problem, says Stamm. In 2007, Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees had 300 employees to process asylum applications. That number is expected to increase to at least 3,000 this year to help process the agency’s 350,000-case backlog,

Khaled Fahed, a Syrian refugee, knows personally how frustrating the system can be.

He’s bounced between makeshift camps and shared apartments since requesting asylum in May. He now lives in an apartment with other refugees in Krumbach, waiting for the government to call with its decision.

"My parents in Syria are the main reasons why I’m desperate to get this residency [permit]," he says. "I just want to get it so I can then listen to their happy voices when I tell them I can finally start my life here." 

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