Refugees: Cold Weather, Heated Debate?

The first in a new series, …And Everything Looks Good Tonight is space for our columnist Niklas Kossow to cast his shrewd eye on politics, the universe and everything.

The temperatures in Berlin start to drop, announcing a cold autumn likely to be followed by a colder winter. At the same time, however, the debate of how Germany should deal with the refugee crisis has been increasingly heating up. Be warned, the following might confuse you.

Interestingly, some of the biggest disagreements on how to deal with the refugee crisis were not found between the federal government and the opposition (disregarding the xenophobic the AfD). The greatest variety of opinions came from within the governing coalition itself. Angela Merkel has shown herself open to newly arriving refugees and proclaiming that ‘we can do it.’ Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, on the other hand, proclaimed that Germany was being overrun by refugees and announced plans to close the borders and erect camps to hold refugee until the decision on their asylum status was taken.

Given the limited powers of the Bavarian premier over the Federal Police protecting the German border and the difficult experience of Germans holding certain people in fenced off camps, the sense for Seehofer’s Realpolitik might well be questioned. Yet while Merkel stressed the inevitability of more refugees, many senior CDU representatives appear to be more worried about losing votes on the right flank of the party.
If the turmoil within the CDU/CSU is confusing you, wait until you meet Thomas Oppermann, a senior SPD party figure. With his call on limiting the right to asylum, he enraged many party members like me, while trying to appeal to those right-wing voters taking the streets in places like Dresden. In short: the governing coalition is not united.

But to be honest, the real challenge of the refugee crisis is at the local level. Here, authorities have been stretched to their limit. Often only with the support of volunteers and donations they manage to barely cope with the number of refugees who came to this country.

The Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (LaGeSo) in Moabit for a while became the symbol of local authorities defeated by the sheer numbers of people trying to apply for asylum in Germany. With temperatures dropping and many refugees still waiting outside for their appointment, the situation is likely to become even more precarious. The Berlin Senate faces the challenge to find a way out of this mess; it presents a scale of misery previously unimaginable in modern day Berlin.

For a while the differences between different Senators of the governing SPD/CDU coalition in Berlin also seemed stark, with Frank Henkel (CDU) insisting on Berlin being the only German Land in which refugees were barred from studying at university. After pressure from the SPD, Henkel finally revised his position this summer. This seems to be just in time to deal with the challenges that the refugee crisis poses to Berlin.
Besides bureaucratic capacity, housing remains the biggest issue in the context of the refugee crisis. Emergency housing is planned to be provided in Tempelhof and at the ICC. Neither of these represents a long term plan, however. At the moment even most of those who had official refugee status granted are still living in collective housing or in camps. This limits the ability of refugees to integrate in German society, as well as providing a logistical nightmare. For a long time a plan on how to offer affordable, long term housing for refugees fell short.

Last week, however, the Senate announced plans to build light-built flats to house 30,000 refugees after having eased regulations on construction in September. The need for affordable housing is not new, but with so many refugees coming to stay in Berlin, the issue has come back to the agenda. The Senate’s plan suggests that these houses could be turned into social housing or student homes in the long run – good news for everyone currently priced out of the Berlin housing market.

While Berlin seems overwhelmed with the refugee situation, some of its politicians slowly begin to work on how to turn the situation around in the long term. Ahead of elections to the Abgeordnetenhaus in 2016, it remains the hope that they will manage to solve some of the problems before the harsh weather kicks in. Even with a stable job and a cozy flat Berlin’s winter can be a nasty experience;  imagining  without creature comforts you get a sense of what refugees face if the Senate fails to deliver.

By Niklas Kossow
Niklas Kossow is a Cologne native who has been flirting with life in Berlin for over three years. If he’s not fighting corruption or writing a PhD, he’s likely to be found hanging around in a hammock by the Kreuzberg canal. Having had many love affairs with other cities in the world he glad to be back in Berlin. He tweets @niklaskossow

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