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article imageRefugee workers urge Germany to learn from past mistakes

By Frank Zeller (AFP)     Jan 11, 2016 in World

Chancellor Angela Merkel's mantra on Germany's record migrant influx has been "we can do it", which Cologne refugee worker Behshid Najafi heartily agrees with -- but would add a qualifying "if".

With 23 years of experience in helping migrant women navigate bureaucracy and find language courses, social welfare and jobs, Najafi says Germany, in its crash course on globalisation, must learn from the mistakes of the past.

"We can do it, as Mrs Merkel has said – IF. If we get affordable housing, legal certainty for refugees, education, jobs training, German courses –- those are just the main points," she said.

No-one, including Merkel, has pretended that taking in 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year alone would be easy.

But Najafi warned that Germany must learn lessons from decades past when waves of migrants were recruited for labour but largely excluded from mainstream society, trapped in immigrant 'ghettos' battling prejudice and red tape.

Iranian-born Najafi, 59, praised the new goodwill toward refugees but cautioned that after the initial rush to house and feed them, the hard and crucial work was only just beginning.

"Otherwise they will be pushed to the margins of society," she warned.

"We will not manage it if they just stay in sports halls, without work, without a future, without language skills.

"Seventy percent of them are men. I fear within a year many could turn to crime. The drug mafias and criminal gangs are just waiting to recruit them."

Such fears have flared in Germany, especially since New Year's Eve in Cologne when hundreds of women have said they were groped, harassed and robbed in a 1,000-strong crowd of men described as being of Arab and North African appearance. Two rapes have been reported.

The unprecedented scenes outside the city's iconic Gothic cathedral have raised deep-seated fears in Germany of more crime and racial tensions to come.

- 'Guest workers' -

Political leaders have said for the past decade that immigration was a key part of German society, long after this was self-evident to Europe's former colonial powers, or the United States and Australia.

Merkel has at times told her wavering nation that the global export power must accept more aspects of globalisation than a huge trade surplus.

Such realisations are welcome, but have been a long time coming, said Najafi, who runs Cologne's Agisra Information and Counselling Centre for Female Migrants and Refugees.

She said when post-war Germany first invited Turkish and other "guest workers" to fuel its economic miracle years, "Germany thought they'll come, work for a few years, and go home again.

"The migrants worked in factories during the day and lived in ghettos at night."

A Cologne Turkish community leader, Hakan Aydin, agreed and said "nothing changed for 20 years. Of course that caused problems.

"As one writer put it, Germany recruited labourers and got human beings."

When the recruitment programme stopped in 1979, many single workers wanted to stay and brought over their families.

"And Germany wasn't ready -- for the families, for putting their children into schools and child care," Najafi said.

- 'Mixed mood' -

Protestors opposing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) attend a c...
Protestors opposing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) attend a counter rally in Leipzig on January 11, 2016 and show Germany's mixed feelings toward refugees after the assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve
Tobias Schwarz, AFP

German citizenship was based on blood lineage until as recently as 2000, when it started being awarded also to children of at least one parent with permanent residency status.

"It's an important point in integration: this picture of what does 'German' mean?" said Najafi's colleague Denise Klein.

"For many, it is still tied closely to this traditional idea of German blood, that you can only be German if you're white," she said, adding that this sense of exclusion cuts both ways.

"Working in schools, I was shocked to see that many girls, often second or third generation migrants and with German passports, do not identify themselves as Germans."

Over the past year, both women said they were heartened to witness a new "welcome culture" and unprecedented volunteer effort.

The big question now since the ugly start to 2016 has been, will the goodwill last?

After the New Year's Eve attacks, "there has been a mixed mood," said Aydin, 42.

"Many who supported the refugees may have worried, what have we done? Did we bring this problem upon ourselves?"

Still, he too remained optimistic, saying that Germany would see that most refugees are grateful to be granted safe haven and want to study and work.

"I don't think the mood is tipping," he said. "I don't think so."

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