People walk past half-timbered houses in Goslar, Germany, where Mayor Oliver Junk has been outspoken in seeing foreign migrants and refugees seeking asylum as an opportunity for the town. (Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)

Welcome To Goslar, Where the Mayor Wants More Refugees

April 19, 2016
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

When Farah, Helen, Mohammed and Sara arrived in the small German town of Goslar last year, what the four child refugees saw could not have been more different than the life they’d left behind in war-torn Syria.

“There isn’t a single shelled house,” their mother, Hala, noticed on their first drive into town. “It’s safe and we won’t be afraid anymore,” said Helen. “When we first came here this morning, the birds were saying, ‘Welcome to Germany’ … I think they might be happy. They’re happy we’re here in Germany.”

The family of five — who are featured in the below scene from the new FRONTLINE documentary, Children of Syria — is among the more than 1 million refugees to arrive in Germany in 2015. While the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly called on Germans to be more welcome, the stream of asylum seekers has nonetheless roiled the nation’s politics.

In the first half of 2015, Germany witnessed 199 attacks on refugee hostels, and in recent months, protests against the nation’s immigration policy have taken place in cities across the country, including Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Leipzig. Last month, backlash to Merkel’s immigration stance propelled the anti-refugee Alternative for Germany party to big gains in regional elections.

But in Goslar, a picturesque town of just 50,000, Mayor Oliver Junk is trying to counter the anti-immigrant sentiment growing not just in Germany, but across much of Europe. With Goslar’s population shrinking by around 2,000 people per year as young people flee to bigger cities and older residents die, Junk sees refugees as key to the town’s future.

“Europeans must welcome and integrate refugees, accepting that they are not a burden but a great opportunity,” Junk wrote in an op-ed published last month in the policy journal Europe’s World. “We have to keep sight of the most essential issue: to support refugees is our most fundamental humanitarian duty.”

Junk, a lawyer by training and a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats party, says refugees can revive Goslar’s economy by moving into empty houses and applying for jobs that have gone unfilled. Schools have closed in Goslar, and in some parts of town, homes are either sitting empty or have been demolished.

In 2014, the broader district of Goslar, which as a region has approximately 135,000 residents, received about 400 refugees, according to Junk. Last year, the district took in around 1,900 new arrivals.

Before new arrivals move into their homes in Goslar, they spend six weeks living in what the city calls its integration center, where they receive language courses and lessons in German culture.

Refugees who are granted asylum are provided a monthly stipend by the German government, as well as other assistance. When Hala and her four children arrived in 2015, for example, they were given around $2,200 per month, a new home, free health care and education.

Despite Junk’s enthusiasm for more refugees, reversing the decline in population has been a difficult climb.

German asylum policy is one factor. The challenge for towns like Goslar is a 1949 law known as the “Königsteiner Schlüssel,” or Königstein Key. Designed to more fairly distribute the financial burden of taking in new refugees, the law requires Germany to relocate them within the country’s 16 states based on population and tax base, as opposed to need or available space.

Refugees who are granted asylum are randomly relocated through an electronic system, meaning small towns like Goslar are only eligible to accept a few hundred refugees, while larger, wealthy cities are responsible for a larger share of the burden. Munich, for example, was assigned 15,000 in 2015.

But many larger cities have struggled to keep up with the pace of arrivals. Some have been forced to close shelters because of overcrowding. In Munich, authorities even considered placing refugees in one of the large tents left over from the Oktoberfest festival.

In big cities, “housing space is scarce,” Junk told FRONTLINE by email. “In contrast, cities like Goslar have to struggle with a permanent decline in population. I used to say that refugees are a chance to oppose vacant flats and shortage of skilled workers. I still see this chance when a reasonable policy of integration is pursued.”

Amid the growing anti-immigrant sentiment, however, changing the law in Germany may prove difficult. In the meantime, Junk is working to convince other small town mayors into adopting his position toward migrants, and has offered to take in refugees from nearby cities that are struggling to manage.

“They say to me, ‘rules are rules.’ It’s typically rigid and German, always having to work with finished concepts rather than allowing for new ideas,” Junk said last summer. “Anyone who tells me Germany is full up, or that we can’t afford them, I say think of our past, and of the future. Of course we can afford them – we’re a rich country, and we have a duty to help those in need.”

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