- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BERLIN — He gets a small stipend from the government, plenty of food, a clean bed and access to classes where he is working hard to learn German.

While Ali, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee, misses his family and worries a lot about the horror of war back home, he knows he is one of the lucky ones.

“If things work out,” he said, “I can stay here forever.”

But it’s not entirely clear if things will work out. In fact, Ali is in limbo. Despite having arrived in Germany almost two years ago, he is still living in what was supposed to be a temporary government-sponsored refugee camp — a sprawling complex of cubiclelike rooms inside the huge, Nazi-era military airport terminal known as Tempelhof.

Ali’s case may be as a good a measure as any of Germany’s ongoing struggle to integrate an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel won praise from human rights groups by announcing that the nation would allow in more than 1 million refugees from Syria and other mainly Middle Eastern war zones.

Ms. Merkel’s move was a stark contrast to the approach by the United States, where President Obama struggled for approval to allow in just 10,000 Syrians before leaving office early this year, and President Trump has moved to block all refugees temporarily, cut back sharply on the number to be let in and ban visas for people from several corners of the Muslim world.

But the politics around Ms. Merkel’s “open door” policy to allow in more refugees than any other nation in the European Union have been no less intense. The chancellor’s approval ratings plunged last year as critics seized on a series of terrorist attacks by asylum seekers as evidence of the policy’s disastrous ramifications.

“If I was able to, I would turn back time by many, many years so that I could have prepared the whole government and the authorities for the situation, which hit us out of the blue in the late summer of 2015,” she said after a series of electoral setbacks for her ruling Christian Democratic Party late last year.

While her ratings have since improved — she is the front-runner for a fourth term ahead of next month’s elections in Germany — Ms. Merkel has been pressed to tighten Germany’s asylum rules. Meanwhile, the challenge of integrating the refugees — more than half of whom are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — continues to weigh on the nation of roughly 83 million people.

The government has begun denying asylum and deporting certain groups of refugees in recent months, only to face criticism from rights advocates for sending back far more Afghans than Syrians under an argument that the overall security in Afghanistan has improved enough for the refugees to go back home.

Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, meanwhile, have moved swiftly through Tempelhof and other refugee centers across Germany. But many more are still coming and, like Ali, thousands are living in a state of deep uncertainty in the temporary facilities.

A spokeswoman at Tempelhof said Berlin just does not have enough permanent housing available for all asylum seekers. But some here say the real problem is subtle and behind-the-scenes discrimination.

“It can be very difficult to find housing,” said Houssam Aldeen, who runs the Salam Culture & Sports Club, a nonprofit in Berlin that offers legal and other integration guidance to refugees.

“There is racism,” Mr. Aldeen, a 38-year-old asylum recipient from Syria, told The Washington Times in an interview. Private real estate companies in Berlin — some of whom own as many as 60 buildings — reject Arab and Muslim applicants despite taking subsidies from the government to provide low-income apartments, he said.

But Mr. Aldeen also said the housing problem is not so significant in light of Germany’s overall progress in confronting one of the most chaotic refugee situations in history.

“In 2015, it was a big mess. There were 6,000 refugees arriving every day,” he said. “When you have a house with five rooms and you get 100 people, you get a mess. It’s hard to organize it. You’re not prepared, especially when other countries run away from their responsibility to hold refugees, including the United States and the U.K.

Germany surprised all the world by taking in this huge number,” Mr. Aldeen added. “No country could take in this many people without some mistakes, but the government has tried to learn from its mistakes, and now that the initial crisis of refugees is over, it’s gotten much better.”

The Islamic State factor

But an internal security crisis is slowly burning, and debate is intensifying over the extent to which it can be tied to the refugee surge.

Data from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency revealed an uptick in violence by neo-Nazi and other far-right anti-immigrant groups and by a surge in left-wing extremism — as well as rising numbers of ultraconservative Islamist “Salafists” living in the nation.

A report by the agency, known as the BfV, said 1,600 violent incidents by far-right groups were recorded in 2016, compared with 1,408 a year earlier. It said some 8,500 “violence-orientated” leftists are operating in Germany.

At the same time, the agency said the nation is now home to some 10,100 ultraconservative Muslims, up from 8,350 in 2015. While it’s unclear how the government determined the size of the Salafist population, officials claimed to be monitoring some 680 Islamists and warned that the chance of violent extremist incidents in the nation is high.

The warning was issued against a backdrop of several terrorist attacks involving asylum seekers and possible links to the Islamic State.

The most prominent was in December, when a 23-year-old Tunisian asylum seeker plowed a stolen semitractor-trailer into the Christmas market outside Berlin’s historic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Twelve people died and 56 others were injured, and the attacker was killed four days later in a shootout with police in Milan, Italy.

Concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany were already surging after an incident a year earlier, during New Year’s Eve celebrations at the end of 2015, when a group of what authorities described as men of Arab or North African appearance sexually assaulted more than a dozen women in the city of Cologne.

Other incidents included a July 2016 ax and knife attack in which a 17-year-old Afghan refugee injured four people on a train near Wurzburg, and a suicide bombing outside a wine bar that same month in the city of Ansbach, where a 27-year-old Syrian-born asylum seeker blew himself up with a backpack bomb and left 15 injured.

German census officials reported this month that the number of people “with an immigrant background” was up nearly 9 percent last year to an all-time high of 18.6 million. In a country that historically has not been a magnet for immigrants, some 22.5 percent of the German population were first- or second-generation immigrants with at least one parent born without German citizenship, the office said.

Mr. Trump, as president-elect, said Ms. Merkel had made a “catastrophic mistake” with her welcoming policy to refugees in 2015.

But while German authorities worried about a potential Islamic State role in the attacks, some in Europe’s higher-level counterterrorism community have cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

In an interview this summer, Europol Director Rob Wainwright played down concerns that the terrorist group is exploiting the waves of young refugees to insert its own operatives into the West. “I don’t see much evidence of a linkage between migration and terrorism,” Mr. Wainwright said. “I don’t think one actually has fed off the other in any sort of what some of the newspaper headlines would have it.”

Mr. Aldeen, the refugee advocate in Berlin, said right-wing German political parties have pounced on terrorism fears to ramp up xenophobic sentiment and criticism of Ms. Merkel. He also said international and local media are overplaying the threat.

“The media is exaggerating the story of ISIS preying on refugees,” said Mr. Aldeen, adding that during the initial refugee surge in Berlin, German authorities moved quickly to identify and root out extremist preaching at a small handful of 19 Arabic-speaking mosques in the city.

The ‘biggest danger’

German public opinion toward refugees has fluctuated while political divisions have hardened.

One man of German descent in his 40s, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said there was initially a huge welcome for refugees by a society with lingering guilt over the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust.

While polls showed a majority of Germans supported Ms. Merkel’s “open door” policy in 2015, there was harsh resistance from the right. Protests were soon pitting pro- and anti-refugee factions against each other in cities across the nation.

The situation gave a boost to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a once-fringe party that suddenly made gains in regional elections last year and whose leader, Frauke Petry, drew scorn from the ruling establishment for equating immigrants to a “compost heap.”

But more recent polls suggest that the AfD’s momentum may have peaked, with only about 10 percent of German voters backing the party. Divisions on the refugee issue are still on display, however, at dueling protests every Monday night outside Berlin’s central train station.

On one recent Monday, men carrying Russian, American and German flags huddled among about two dozen people gathered for an anti-immigrant rally, where sentiments were strong that the refugee wave had put German heritage under dangerous attack.

“What’s happening is the destruction of the German people, who are being replaced by a foreign population,” said a woman in her 50s who spoke on the condition of not being named. “The government is actually facilitating this.”

“The point of why we’re here,” added a 52-year-old man nearby, “is to draw attention to the Islamization of this country. That’s the biggest danger.”

About 100 yards away, past a makeshift police barricade, a dozen or so counterdemonstrators were gathered to push a very different message.

“There are Nazis over there on the other side,” said one young man, who refused to say anything else to a reporter “because we don’t like journalists or newspapers.”

“This side is made up of anti-fascist organizations and grass-roots groups,” added 58-year-old Tony de Vil, who grew up in East Berlin. “We’re really here for two main reasons. The first is to oppose the fascist message in general, and the second is to show support for refugees.

“After two years and a million refugees, nobody is saying there are no problems,” said Mr. de Vil. “But we have the obligation in Europe to help people.”

The ‘first step’

Millions of Muslims arrived in Germany long before the refugee surge. Turkish-born German citizens represent nearly 2.5 percent of the population and constitute the nation’s largest immigrant ethnic group.

Some of them say the government should be letting in far more refugees.

“I think they’re not letting in enough,” said a 48-year-old Turkish-German taxi driver who also spoke on the condition of not being named. “In Turkey, there are 3.5 million just Syrian refugees right now.

“Integration is a thing that doesn’t happen today or tomorrow,” said the driver, adding that he arrived as an immigrant when he was just 7. “It’s a process that takes a lot of time, and I think it will work particularly well with the Syrian refugees coming into Germany because among that group, lots of them have good educations. I’m sure in the long run Germany will benefit. But it has to invest in them.”

For Ali, the 30-year-old refugee at Tempelhof, feelings of safety and opportunity outweigh any fear he has of anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiment.

“The majority of the people are very nice and supportive and help the refugees,” he said. “There are some who don’t, but the majority supports refugees. I feel very welcome here.”

Ali expressed sorrow that his mother and sister, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, are stuck in his hometown of Hasakah, Syria, about 60 miles east of the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa.

“It’s hard to know that my family is back in Syria, and I cannot do anything about it,” he said, although he quickly added that his focus is on how to make his own life work in Germany, where he is receiving about $270 a month in government assistance while staying at Tempelhof.

“You have to try and find a good job, and the first step in this direction is to speak German well,” he said. “Without language skills, there’s no chance to find a job.”

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