BERLIN — Nearly two months after German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed hundreds of thousands of migrants, Germany’s legendary reputation for efficiency is being put to the test as it struggles to absorb as many as 1 million new settlers this year.
Europe’s wealthiest country is feeling the strains of processing, housing and schooling the huge influx of migrants streaming in from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other conflict zones.
In addition to building temporary shelters, the government has commandeered school gyms, vacant offices, shuttered army barracks, two hangars at an abandoned airfield and even an ex-Nazi labor camp to house the migrants. Some Germans have opened their homes to refugees, including Hilde Schramm, 79, the daughter of Adolf Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer.
«German infrastructure is under pressure, not because of the number of refugees that are coming here, but in terms of providing the accommodation they need in our municipalities,» said Michael Roth, Germany’s Minister of State for Europe. «Our local authorities are extremely burdened, and that’s the problem. We need more time.»
The country has to build 400,000 new homes every year to accommodate the refugees, according to a study by the Pestel Institute, a research group based in Hanover.
Arguments have broken out among Germany’s 16 states and the federal government over allocating the migrants. States want to keep their numbers to the minimum required by law, and the result means overcrowded refugee camps.
In a shelter in the eastern city of Leipzig in late September, police had to quell a fight among several hundred asylum seekers, wielding broken furniture as weapons, over access to the bathroom.
Similar incidents have taken place across the country, increasing tensions with police.
«The police are at their limits,» Jörg Radek, deputy chief of Germany’s police union, toldDeutsche Welle news service. He said officers were asked to register new arrivals and mediate disputes between people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Attacks on refugee shelters by far-right extremists also occur regularly, and the anti-immigrant group Pegida has stepped up its demonstrations. A few weeks ago, Colognemayoral candidate Henriette Reker was stabbed while campaigning by an attacker prosecutors said was motivated by her pro-refugee positions. (She survived and won the election.)
This country of 80 million had said it could easily soak up the 1 million refugees expected this year. More than 577,000 migrants have arrived in Germany so far this year, with 163,772 new arrivals in September alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.
A few months ago, volunteers from Hamburg to Munich handed out diapers, toothpaste and friendly faces to arriving migrants. Polls show that sentiment still largely holds across Germany, but Merkel’s government acknowledges the country is overburdened.
The government says thousands of new teachers are needed to educate the hundreds of thousands of refugee children entering Germany’s school system this year. Volunteers are teaching basic German to many children so they can join regular classes.
The overload also prompted Germany to speed up deportations of those who arrive here for economic reasons, instead of those seeking asylum from persecution or war. One proposal would use military planes to send back migrants.
Horst Seehofer, the governor of the state of Bavaria, and others are pushing for more stringent measures, although building a fence as Hungary did has been ruled out.
Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, warned Wednesday that many Afghans from relatively safe areas of their country would be sent home.
“Large amounts of development aid have gone to Afghanistan — so we can expect that Afghans stay in their country,” de Maizière said. “So I am saying very clearly today that people who come to us as refugees from Afghanistan cannot all expect to be able to stay in Germany.”
On a recent morning at Berlin’s main processing center for migrants there were still long lines. Young men were wrapped in blankets to stave off the cold, but they were smiling and taking selfies.
Yet dozens still spend nights camped on frigid sidewalks. That includes Ashin Kamali, 31, who said he left Iran three months ago after the government tried to imprison him for converting to Christianity from Islam. «You would have to be crazy to leave your country for this, if you didn’t have to,» he said.
Kamali waited for more than 12 hours to collect a $112 payment from immigration officials. The money is to last one month as he winds through the German bureaucratic process.
«The situation for migrants has improved in the sense that there is more initial order for those who have just arrived,» said Laszlo Hubert, who runs Moabit Helps, a volunteer aid organization. «But once they have been here for a little while, then it has not improved. They are stuck in camps, waiting.»
As Roth, the German minister, put it, “The refugees are here now, and we have to treat them in the best way we can. We can’t say to the refugees, ‘Please, wait, two or three months and then come.’ ”