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article imageGermany wins hearts with warm response to refugee crisis

By Simon Morgan (AFP)     Sep 7, 2015 in World

Vilified as a heartless penny-pincher during the Greek crisis, Germany is winning plaudits at home in the other great challenge facing Europe this year through the warm welcome it has given to refugees.

Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed as "breathtaking" the scenes of Germans crowding train stations last weekend to cheer the beleaguered arrivals and thrust food, water and gifts into their hands.

"What we are experiencing now is something that will... change our country in coming years," she said.

The spontaneous solidarity showed "something very valuable, especially in view of our history," she said.

Merkel expressed joy that "Germany has become a country that many people abroad associate with hope".

Merkel and her stone-faced finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, have frequently been lampooned in Nazi caricatures in the anti-austerity protests during Greece's long and debilitating debt crisis.

A sign reading "Welcome to Germany" is fixed at a wall at the main station in Dortmund  Se...
A sign reading "Welcome to Germany" is fixed at a wall at the main station in Dortmund, September 6, 2015
Maja Hitij, DPA/AFP

In fact, during the bitter bailout standoff between Athens and its creditors, commentators of all political stripes said they feared that Berlin's "bad cop" stance could bring back "ugly German" stereotypes of rigid, brutal enforcers.

But that image appears to have vanished, almost overnight, after Germany signalled its readiness to offer shelter to more than 800,000 refugees from Syria and other countries this year -- the biggest intake of any EU country.

Under the EU's so-called Dublin rules, asylum applications must be processed by the country where a person first arrives.

But Germany has decided to suspend that rule for Syrian refugees, effectively opening up a corridor for them to seek safety in Europe's biggest and most prosperous economy.

- 'I love Germany' -

Europe is deeply divided over how to handle the continent's biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and Hungary's and other eastern European nations' hard line has contrasted with a show of solidarity elsewhere in Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban lashed out at Germany for giving refugees false hopes and causing the unprecedented influx of refugees into Europe.

A child refugee walks past volunteers distributing food and drinks for migrants after arriving at th...
A child refugee walks past volunteers distributing food and drinks for migrants after arriving at the railway station of Hamburg, Germany on September 5, 2015
Daniel Reinhardt, DPA/AFP/File

"The problem is not a European problem, the problem is a German problem," Orban charged.

In view of Hungary's unwelcoming stance, it is hardly surprising that hundreds of migrants chanted "Germany, Germany" as they waited at a Budapest railway station last week, some clutching photos of Merkel and signs proclaiming "I love Germany".

And then, when thousands of bewildered refugees, frightened and exhausted from their perilous journeys, stumbled out of trains in Munich and Frankfurt at the weekend, they were given a heroes' welcome by ordinary Germans brandishing welcome signs and bags of food, water and presents.

"Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here," chanted hundreds of well-wishers at Frankfurt's main station.

Seemingly in the blink of any eye, Germany has turned from baddie to goodie, media commentators said, showing countries more wary about -- or even openly hostile to -- the influx of refugees, how to handle the EU's biggest migrant crisis in decades with heart and compassion.

Shoes and clothes collected for migrants are set out at a community center near the train station in...
Shoes and clothes collected for migrants are set out at a community center near the train station in Dortmund, Germany, on September 6, 2015
Patrik Stollarz, AFP

Germany has turned from Europe's "austerity commissioner into benevolent host," said the conservative daily Die Welt.

"By facing up to this challenge, it can serve as an example and bring about a political turning point in Europe," it said, while hitherto the bloc had tended to want to erect barriers to stem the influx of migrants or pass the chalice on to neighbouring countries.

Another daily, the Sueddeutsche, even hailed the advent of a "New Germany".

- More funds -

In the wake of the growing pro-refugee sentiment -- and given the country's economic prowess -- the government is putting its money where its mouth is and plans to make an additional six billion euros ($6.7 billion) in public funds available next year to cover the cost of looking after the refugees.

A fire destroyed part of a container used as a residence for refugees in Rottenburg am Neckar  Germa...
A fire destroyed part of a container used as a residence for refugees in Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany on September 7, 2015. Police are investigating the cause of the fire, which came after a spate of arson attacks against refugee homes
Marijan Murat, DPA/AFP

But pockets of simmering anti-immigrant sentiment remain, mostly in the former communist east of Germany, where refugee centres have become the targets of violent protests and attacks, not just by neo-Nazis and extremist far-right groups.

Five people were injured when a fire erupted at a refugee shelter in Rottenburg in south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg early Monday. Another blaze hit buildings scheduled to become shelters in the town of Ebeleben in the state of Thuringia in the formerly communist east, but no-one was hurt.

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