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article imageNestled in far-right stronghold, German town opens doors to migrants

By Yannick PASQUET (AFP)     Sep 26, 2020 in World

The town of Neuruppin may be nestled in an eastern part of Germany where the far-right AfD party enjoys some of its strongest support.

But it is offering to take in refugees again, five years after a huge migrant influx bitterly divided the country.

"We have room for 50 to 75 people," Jens-Peter Golde, the mayor of the 31,000-strong town, told AFP.

"We are doing well here and we have the possibility (to help) people in need."

At the height of the EU's migrant crisis in 2015, Angela Merkel announced that Germany's borders would not be closed to any refugees, a move hailed as historic by some but blamed by others for the subsequent rise in far-right nationalism.

The country has since taken in more than one million asylum seekers.

The thorny issue of immigration in Europe has shot to the top of the bloc's political agenda again, however, after a huge fire destroyed the biggest refugee camp in Greece, in Moria on the island of Lesbos.

Rights activists have urged EU governments to take in the 12,000 people left without shelter in the aftermath of the blaze, again raising the contentious question of how many refugees each country should be responsible for.

Merkel's government has said Germany is prepared to take in around 1,500 people in all, including some from the burnt-down Moria camp.

Mayor Jens-Peter Golde says there is room to take in people from the burnt-out migrant camp in Moria
Mayor Jens-Peter Golde says there is room to take in people from the burnt-out migrant camp in Moria
Tobias SCHWARZ, AFP

And out of the country's 2,000-plus towns and cities, some 173 -- including 16 in the east -- have written to Berlin offering their help.

Mayor Golde said Neuruppin's experience from five years ago showed that the town could make it work this time, too.

Space used to house asylum seekers back in 2015 was now being freed up as migrants move to more permanent homes.

And that meant there was room to take in newcomers, he said.

"When you see the pictures in Moria, it is not a question of politics, it is a question of morals," Golde said.

- 'Chasing' the new workforce -

And not only that, it is about economics, too.

In 2015, the arrival of refugees proved a boon for entrepreneurs in the region.

"Local businesses are chasing the workforce," according to Martin Osinski, former head of 18 asylum seekers' hostels in the area, who remembers small and medium-sized business owners literally knocking on their doors in search of labour.

Some 1,550 foreigners -- including Syrians, Chechens and Poles -- currently live in Neuruppin.

And the care sector in particular is one area where migrants are in high demand.

"I want to live in a town that is open to the world and that provides protection and care for people who have fled war or famine," said Beate Schaedler, a specialist in social pedagogy.

Nevertheless, integrating newcomers continues to be a challenge in the town where the far-right AfD won one in five votes in state elections of Brandenburg last year.

AfD's lead candidate in the area, Klaus Baumdick, did not respond to AFP's request for an interview.

But the party's leaders have suggested that resettling migrants from Greek camps would only incite "arsonists" to set fire to other camps in the hope of being sent to Germany.

Taking in refugees is not just a question of politics  but of morals  too  campaigners say
Taking in refugees is not just a question of politics, but of morals, too, campaigners say
Tobias SCHWARZ, AFP

Wolfgang Freese, a teacher, concedes there were "difficulties and we mustn't deny them."

He said that some of his colleagues felt uncomfortable teaching refugee pupils.

On top of the problem of housing, some residents have expressed concern about the migrants' willingness to integrate themselves into the community, complaining, for example, that some men arriving from patriarchal countries were reluctant to see their wives learn the language of the host country.

But mayor Golde dismisses such criticism.

"You will always find people who say 'we are obliged to sleep under bridges and they are entitled to the best flats'. But that is pure populism! I don't know anyone in Neuruppin who sleeps under bridges," he said.

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