Seen from afar Germany, like most of Europe, looks hopelessly divided over how best to handle the refugees stuck in miserable conditions along its borders. But a movement of German towns is arguing they can help alleviate the crisis on their own.
They call themselves “sichere Häfen”, or “safe harbours”, and include more than 180 German municipalities and states that have volunteered to bring in more asylum seekers than the central government’s quota system allows.
The grassroots movement, which pits itself against a government trying to balance political divisions at home and across Europe, has gained steam in the wake of last week’s fire at Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Nearly 13,000 inhabitants fled the camp, which hosted four times the people it was built to house.
“This is an imperative of our humanity, to help these people,” says Brigitte Meier, a local health and security official working with refugee homes in the city of Potsdam, one of the Safe Harbours signatories. “A large portion of Potsdam’s citizens are behind the municipality and the mayor’s desire to take in significantly more than our quota allows.”
At the height of the influx of refugees in 2015-16, Germany initiated a quota policy to distribute new arrivals across the country. Safe Harbour towns are demanding the right to take in more than their share.
But for politicians, the issue is a minefield. Conservatives see Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome nearly 1m refugees in 2015 as a fateful mistake that divided the country. Five years on, statistics show refugee integration has been quite successful, but many see a link between the influx and an emboldened far-right.
A Forsa poll last week showed 50 per cent of Germans are in favour of bringing in Moria refugees, with the other half split between wanting a Europe-wide approach and not wanting any newcomers at all.
The Safe Harbours movement began in 2018, organised by a group called Seebrücke, or “Sea Bridge”, to help take in refugees rescued at sea. It grew last year, as reports revealed miserable conditions at Greek island refugee camps. Some had only one toilet per 300 people, thousands were without running water, and five to six people were living in 3 sq m spaces.
After Moria was torched, organiser Jan Behrends says Seebrücke has received a steady flow of interest from towns and community groups. “Every day we have newcomers. Sometimes, we had no idea about them,” he said. “They just organised themselves and we found out later.”
Many German leaders insist only a Europe-wide solution can solve the crisis, but on Wednesday, a plan to take in 1,553 refugees signalled some central government deference to local pressure. It is still far from what Safe Harbours campaigners want.
Under the quota system, Potsdam would receive about three refugees. They have offered to take in roughly 100. Similar pledges to receive hundreds, and even up to 1,000, have been made across Germany.
In central Potsdam, Ms Meier and her colleagues show off a cheerful refugee housing centre of apartments. Modern art lines the walls of a meeting room, and children from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Eritrea, and Syria chatter away in German at a sandbox in the courtyard.
Late last year, interior minister Horst Seehofer blocked requests to accept more refugees. Now, the city of Berlin and the state of Thuringia are proposing a debate to change the law. Berlin is also considering lawsuits against the ministry.
Opponents see this as infringing on central government powers. “This is a global problem that cannot be solved locally,” Mr Seehofer told parliament on Wednesday. “One thing we cannot accept is for them to say, ‘we take people in and the federal government pays’.”
A group of conservative MPs from Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, known as the Berlin Circle, described the fire in Moria, which was reportedly set by residents of the camp itself, as “moral blackmail”. It said accepting refugees from Lesbos could encourage people at other camps to do the same.
Ursula Löbel, of the Urban Alliance in Potsdam, argues that because local governments care for the newcomers, they should get to decide what they can handle. Among themselves, Germany’s Safe Harbour towns could handle all of Moria’s former residents, she claims.
“We gained a lot of experience from 2015. Many initiatives were founded. These are different in each city, and they are active in different ways,” she said. “The idea is: They know best what they have, what they can rely on.”
Memories of 2015 are the very reason others are wary: Migration debates helped propel the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) into parliament in 2017, particularly due to its popularity in states of the former East Germany.
Activist Miriam Tödter, of the Brandenburg charity Wir Packen’s An, says her advocacy proves the trends can change. Early this year, she started a campaign to fill one truck with goods and drive it to refugees in Greece from her hometown of Bad Freienwalde, which voted 30 per cent AfD.
“People told us we’d never fill that truck. We filled four,” she recalls.
“If you give people the personal experience of meeting others, of being part of doing something . . . then you will have a strong majority.”
Additional reporting by Michael Peel