- - Thursday, September 10, 2015

BERLIN, Germany — In a life he now wants to forget, Muhammad Albalkhy, 26, used to dream of a career in TV. But when a bomb flattened his home in southern Syria and killed 12 members of his family, everything changed.

“I knew I had to get out of the country,” he said, recalling his decision to leave for Germany in June. “Now I just want to forget everything about my past life in Syria — throw it all behind me. I just want to live.”

His decision, and the decisions of hundreds of thousands like him, have now exploded into a security and humanitarian crisis that is consuming the continent and posing special challenges to Germany, the EU’s economic powerhouse and the country most coveted by the desperate refugees.

Mr. Albalkhy is one of 800,000 refugees expected to apply for asylum in Germany this year — a flood that quadruples the number of arrivals in 2014 and more than doubles the government forecast issued just at the beginning of the year. And since Germany and Austria opened their borders to migrants from Hungary last weekend — which culminated in 20,000 entering Munich on Saturday and Sunday alone — the influx to Germany is showing no signs of slowing down.

EU officials said Thursday that Germany was one of five countries, along with France, Hungary, Italy and Sweden, handling some 70 percent of the asylum applications from the current wave of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other unstable countries.

The EU proposed Wednesday in Brussels to share 120,000 refugees now marooned in Greece, Italy and Hungary among 22 member states, on top of a proposal in May to share 40,000 refugees from just Greece and Italy, according to The Associated Press.

The wave is proving particularly divisive here. Some, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, say they welcome the new arrivals. But the influx comes as Germany was dealing with a rising xenophobic movement that has staged a string of raucous demonstrations against the country’s rising Muslim population in recent months.

“I’m happy that Germany has become a country that many people abroad associate with hope,” the German chancellor told reporters during a press conference this week in Berlin, shortly before announcing her government would spend an additional $6.7 billion to deal with the influx. “That is something very valuable, especially in view of our history.”

The chancellor on Thursday made a symbolic visit to refugee families with young children at a home in the Berlin suburb of Spandau, telling reporters later, “Their integration will certainly take place in part via the children, who will learn German very quickly in kindergarten. And I hope and believe that the great majority will want to learn our language very quickly.”

And a number of grass-roots initiatives and businesses have been mobilizing to help refugees find homes, jobs and a place in a new and deeply unfamiliar culture.

“I am a mother myself, and if there was a war in my country, I would also flee — as fast as I could,” said Inga Schmetzer, 34, who drives daily to local refugee shelters to drop off winter clothes, bedding and cuddly toys, and has mobilized 600 people in her local area to donate. “I help simply because I see people who need it. Their nationality is completely irrelevant to me.”

But elsewhere the refugee crisis has re-energized anti-immigrant sentiment. According to the German Interior Ministry, there were 202 attacks on refugee shelters in the first six months of 2015 — equal to the tally for all of 2014.

Some of Mrs. Merkel’s conservative allies have warned she is stoking tensions. Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann of the Christian Social Union (CSU), partner party to the chancellor’s Christian Democrat Union, said she sent a “totally wrong signal” by allowing all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of the first EU country they set foot in — a move that made Germany the only EU state to suspend the so-called Dublin agreement on handling refugees.

Echoing concerns over resources, Bavarian district President Christoph Hillenbrand, also a CSU member, said: “We’re right at our limit.”

Divided public

Recent surveys find a deep split in popular attitudes.

While two-thirds are in favor of the status quo or taking more refugees, fears about high levels of migration are high, at 40 percent, according to market research institute Infratest. Meanwhile, a study by German insurer R+V published last week found one in two Germans are worried the influx of refugees will overwhelm citizens and authorities.

“What do we plan on doing with so many?” Steffi Senss from Brandenburg near Berlin wrote on the Facebook page of German far-right party the NPD. “Soon they’ll be forcing every one of us to take in asylum seekers.”

Analysts say the government has not done enough to assuage fears.

“German society wasn’t prepared for 800,000 [refugees],” said Christian Noebel, director of integration at the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), which represents 3 million entrepreneurs. “The prognosis up to now was half that amount, so an enormous amount still needs to be done.”

For Frankfurt-based human rights organization Pro Asyl, the first vital step is housing. Company CEO Guenter Burkhardt said the country’s policy of forcing refugees to remain in mass accommodation sites for protracted periods only serves to provoke extremists.

“Large refugee shelters are an easy target for right-wing attacks and a breeding ground for racism,” said Mr. Burkhardt. “The only solution is to allow refugees to move out of shelters and camps and into their own homes as quickly as possible.”

Groups like Refugees Welcome, which connect refugees and apartment tenants with a spare room, have emerged to try to fill this vacuum.

“Refugees Welcome works because we provide a sustainable way to integrate newcomers,” said group co-founder Mareike Geiling, who hosted a refugee from Mali in her shared apartment for six months. “If you force hundreds to live in mass accommodation, of course they won’t get to know Germany — they won’t build a network, learn German or find a job. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Still, analysts say the greatest obstacle to sustainable integration is bureaucracy.

For example, asylum-seekers do not receive the normal work permit, and there is a 15-month probation period during which refugee applicants are subordinate to German and EU citizens on the jobs market.

“So if a firm wants to hire a refugee, they have to check with federal labor agencies that there isn’t also a native German who is suited to the job,” said Clemens Ohlert, researcher at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research, a think tank. “The government could abolish this rule to make it easier for refugees to work so they don’t need as much money from the state.”

But for a country with more vacant job posts than anywhere in the European Union — 597,000 — and whose workforce is aging faster than any other on the planet, businesses say labor market integration of refugees would be to the economy’s benefit.

And it would also satisfy the demands of 97 percent of Germans who want newcomers to learn German, and the expectation of 87 percent that refugees work and pay taxes, Mr. Noebel added.

“Here I think you can do something for both sides — working brings with it language skills, which will advance the integration of refugees in society,” said Mr. Noebel. “And as companies are looking for workers, why shouldn’t they be able to tap the potential for refugees who are likely to be allowed to stay?”

Riham Kusa contributed to this story from Berlin, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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