The Refugee Crisis in Germany as a Very Good Chaos

Following my article in the Guardian about my experience of finding a refugee sleeping in the basement of my Hamburg home, I was inundated with feedback.  The dilemma I had faced and presented seemed to have struck a chord.  Some of those who contacted me were local organizations offering to give me a broader context of events in the city.  Throughout September I followed up on this and visited refugee camps and advisory centers and spoke to social workers, volunteers, activists and even pastors on the front line of the crisis in Germany.  What I found was chaos and confusion; a system tested to its limits and authorities struggling to cope.  But in this chaos I encountered something profound and was witness to what I believe is a shift in the national psyche.

By the end of 2014 Hamburg was host to some 12,000 refugees, today that number is about 42,000.  For any one city, this would be a lot to deal with.  This drastic escalation is best exemplified by the refugee camp on Schnackenburgallee just 2km from my home in the western suburbs.  The container village built last year to house some 800 refugees suddenly expanded this summer to include a tent-city for an additional 2,000.  It’s muddy but fairly well maintained, and the inhabitants seem, if anything, relieved to be there, although it’s early days yet.  For most of them, this is finally a safe port of call after the greatest journey of their lives.

Speaking to the camp coordinators, I was able to gain some insight into the conditions, logistics and concerns.  They, as the whole country, were surprised and overwhelmed by the sudden influx.  They’ve handled it admirably, heroically even, and most importantly, not alone.  The public outpouring of donations and kindness can’t be overstated.  A virtual avalanche of clothing, bedding and toys required a part of the huge convention center to be requisitioned in which to sort and distribute the donations, an operation on the level of a major airport.  In fact, people have been trying to help too much and are often misguided in their good intentions.  One anecdote related to me was of how the coordinators had to head off three elderly ladies tottering up the path to the camp bearing gifts of freshly baked cakes.  The well-meaning ladies had not considered how three cakes could be shared between three thousand, and a potential cake-riot had to be averted.

Of course things are not perfect – it is, after all, a refugee camp, and as such only as good as can be presently mustered.  It’s overcrowded, there are scuffles, frustrations, those with war trauma and depression.  But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, hope for a future.  A clear process through to an asylum status decision has been established and, although not for everybody, a path to integration.  There are those who need help more than others and those who simply do not belong there.  It’s a thankless task to sort all this out; every story will be different and hard decisions will have to be made.  “We have to continuously remind the residents,” I was told by a camp worker, “that this is not the end, this is the beginning.”

A sense of duty in response to the crisis seems to be the general sentiment in Hamburg.  I have never seen such levels of civic participation before and everyone I know seems to be involved in some small way.  Of course not everybody is happy, there are the detractors and that niggling doubt whether the current trend of support can be sustained.  There are worries of the spectre of extreme right-wing elements lurking in the shadows.  And yet, there they are, in the shadows, and beyond a handful of cowardly attacks have barely manifested themselves otherwise.  We point to history too readily – the reality of modern Germany is that it is a progressive and liberal state.  Politics aside, many are scared by the unknown.  The great unknown is this million-plus wave of foreign humanity threatening to transform the accustomed way of life.  It is, essentially, an upheaval.  But when one gets past the alarmist diatribe, it’s apparent that life continues as normal, just with a few extra refugees in town.

Germany is no stranger to sudden waves of migration.  All this has happened before.  Following WW2 there were several million displaced people in the country, many of whom had been purged from East European states.  An elderly neighbour of mine recalls when seven shared her tiny 50 square meter apartment due to the lack of housing, an arrangement which lasted into the mid-1950’s.  The Turks (and others) came in their millions as Gastarbeiters in the 50’s and 60’s and now some 3 million Germans are of Turkish descent.  Despite this, Germany is still German, with a very cool Turkish twist.  In the 1990’s, the recently reunified country took hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Balkans, most of whom returned home when things had settled.

So what’s different this time?  Well, I see a new awareness in the character of the nation, a new purpose to the realization of Germany as a country of migrants.  There is a resolute openness and hopefulness that can see the opportunity in newcomers.  Not everyone agrees, but this is the predominant feeling.

Germany can manage this crisis, absolutely.  Can it do so forever, without limit?  I very much doubt it – it’s just too much to ask of any one country.

Taking a look around a new container village in my neighbourhood this week, I stopped to chat to a group of local teenage lads who were helping the new residents move in furniture.  In any British city, these lads would probably be classified as NEDs, yet here they were doing their part.  I was impressed by them, and curious.  After quizzing them about their and their families’ opinions, they asked mine.  I was stuck for words at first, and then told them that I was simply proud.  For the first time in several years of living in Germany, I was actually proud of the country for the stance it had taken.  And I was proud of them for getting involved.  They were dumbstruck.  Some of them wiped tears from their eyes.  It hadn’t even occurred to them that what they were doing could be perceived by an outsider as admirable.  In typically infuriating German reservedness, they were only doing what they felt was right.

In mid-September, there was a major rally on the main square outside the Rathaus in solidarity with the refugees, called by the left-wing SPD, the party of the mayor Olaf Scholz, who himself officiated the event.  Some 15,000 attended, waving multicoloured banners and singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  The police presence was huge, with about 3,000 called in from surrounding cities.  All this activity was a counter-action to a scheduled anti-refugee demonstration, organized by the far-right NPD, which was to take place later that day.  Thousands of anti-fascist activists surrounded the main station seeking to thwart this event.  Some ran on to the train tracks and stopped trains believed to be carrying far-right thugs into the city.

I stayed in the station that entire afternoon to watch the action unfold, but it became clear after a while that the anti-immigrant rally would not be taking place.  What was left was a jam-packed station (Germany’s largest and busiest) with every storefront lined with police kitted in riot gear, and something of a carnival atmosphere.  Hundreds of punks sat in groups laughing and drinking beer.  Recently arrived refugees sat on blankets at assembly points, looking tired and bewildered, with donations of food and clothing piled high around them.  Store owners ran power strips out to them so they could charge their phones.  On the plaza outside, two orderly lines had formed next to one another and eyed each other curiously – one line was for the Red Crescent tent, the other for the shuttle buses to the luxury cruise liners in the harbour.  Everyone was in a great mood and it was infectious.  Something seemed to crystallize in this delirious scene…  it was an affirmation that chaos can be positive.  This was a Hamburg welcome, and an absolute rejection of anyone wanting to spoil the party.  All sorts, all colours, anything goes, except for the bigots and racists, they’re not invited!

As for the woman who had spent the night in my basement?  I spent many days searching for her, but I never found her.  We don’t always get the convenient ending to a story that we want.  She fell through the net or she didn’t want to register here, either is likely.  But I feel certain that she’s okay, because she’s here.


A local business owner in Altona lets his stance be known.


Sources and references:

Numbers of Hamburg refugees:

Schnackenburgallee refugee camp:,fluechtlinge2170.html

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