Even those who supported Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees last month are starting to worry that Germany cannot cope
Hundreds of people are huddled outside Berlin’s main government office for asylum-seekers in the pouring rain. Some have soaking sleeping bags wrapped around them against the cold, others stand shivering in thin plastic ponchos; they are all waiting to be registered as refugees.
They come every day to wait. Some arrive as early as 4am and stay until after dark, only to leave empty-handed. There are Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis. Until they are registered, they are homeless in the heart of Europe’s richest country. Many have been waiting for weeks.
The German authorities are overwhelmed, and simply cannot keep up with the thousands arriving every day.
Mohammed Kabalan and his friend Ahmad Hariri arrived more than a month ago. They come from Daraa, where the Syrian civil war began, but they still haven’t been able to get themselves registered.
So Mr Kabalan and Mr Hariri must wait. Some nights they are lucky and Berlin friends take them in, or a local mosque lets them stay on the floor.
The rest of the time they sleep in the street outside the gate to the refugee office, so they can join the queue again early in the morning. But Mr Kabalan refused to criticise the German authorities.
“Germany is wonderful,” the 24-year-old said. “We have nowhere to sleep but it’s still wonderful. The people are very, very good. It’s much better here than in Syria.”
The two men’s story encapsulates Germany’s dilemma. When Angela Merkel announced last month that the country would take in the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across Europe, she was hailed as a hero by Germans and asylum-seekers alike.
But now the country is facing the hard reality of how to deal with the numbers. Some 150,000 people are arriving every month – the equivalent of a decent-sized English town.
«We don’t know who’s coming, who they are, we’re not registering them properly, it’s chaos»
Across Berlin in the chancellor’s office, Mrs Merkel has her own problems to worry about. As the country struggles with the influx, opposition to her decision to let the refugees is growing by the day. For the first time in years Europe’s most powerful leader faces a threat to her authority.
Even those who supported her decision to welcome the migrants last month are starting to worry that Germany cannot cope.
“We still support the chancellor, but this migration crisis is taking us to the brink,” a German parliamentarian with close links to Mrs Merkel told the Sunday Telegraph. “If this goes on for another few weeks, I fear the system will collapse.
“We don’t know who’s coming, who they are, we’re not registering them properly, it’s chaos. We can’t do this. Where are the people going to stay? Are we going to confiscate private households? What are we going to do?”
The tiny village of Sumte, with just 100 inhabitants, hit the headlines last week when the authorities announced plans to house 1,000 refugees there. Locals told the mayor at a televised meeting they weren’t against the country taking in refugees, but simply couldn’t cope with the idea of being outnumbered ten-to-one in their own village.
Mrs Merkel’s challenge is not financial – experts say the €15 billion needed to deal with the refugee influx is well within Germany’s fiscal comfort zone – but logistical, as the country seeks the houses and hospitals, schools and teachers needed to assimilate such vast numbers.
According to German government projections, as many as 40 per cent of the 800,000 refugees the country expects to host this year are children of school age – and most speak little or no German. Schools across the country are advertising more than 3,000 new jobs for teachers, and the state of Bavaria alone says it needs to find spaces for 50,000 more children by the end of this year.
With the harsh German winter approaching fast, some 42,000 refugees are still being in housed in tents because government shelters have run out of space. Night-time temperatures have already fallen to freezing; by January, they could drop as low as minus 25C.
At this week’s EU summit, the famously tireless Mrs Merkel looked exhausted. She had come in the hope of securing backing from European allies that would alleviate the pressure on her country, but won little support.
In Germany, her personal approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level since 2011, and her Christian Democrat party is sinking fast in the polls.
At a meeting with her own party activists in Germany last week, Mrs Merkel was told bluntly she “should be ashamed” and was a “failure as a government leader”. One activist turned up with a banner that read “Dethrone Merkel”.
Even at a senior political level, there are mutterings about finding an alternative leader – something that was unthinkable a month ago.
Mrs Merkel has been pitched into an unseemly power struggle with Horst Seehofer, the state prime minister of Bavaria, a supposed political ally who has emerged as the leading opponent of her refugee policy.
Mr Seehofer has called her decision to let in the refugees a “mistake we will be dealing with for years” and threatened to sue the federal government if it does not take action to curb the numbers. He has even threatened Bavaria may take unilateral action to deport refugees back to Austria, a move that would amount to open rebellion.
Facing protests at home and isolated in Europe, Mrs Merkel has looked abroad to fashion an enduring solution to the migration crisis, arriving in Ankara on Sunday for talks with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Top of the agenda will be an offer of concrete German support for a deal that would provide Turkey with up to €3 billion in aid in return for taking in more refugees and preventing them from travelling on to Europe.
Diplomatic sources said Mrs Merkel would be “crucial” in pushing forward a deal that analysts say will face opposition in Turkey during an election season, where nationalist public opinion has turned sharply against allowing Syrian refugees to settle.
“The Merkel visit is key to firming up some parts of the deal,” the source said. “She will firm up the money – which is perfectly affordable – as well as the political commitments which can make this happen.”
Because of Germany’s growing clout, Mrs Merkel is key to a host of existential issues facing the EU in 2016 from the British renegotiation, to likelihood of fresh troubles in Greece, the integration of the Eurozone – not to mention Syria and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“It is a very heavy in-tray,” says Mujtaba Rahman, head of the Europe desk at the Eurasia Group, the leading risk consultancy, “and having the refugee crisis subtract from her standing is going to affect Merkel’s capacity to deal with it.”
Mrs Merkel has removed control of refugee policy from Thomas de Maiziere, the increasingly embattled interior minister, and appointed Peter Altmaier, one of her most trusted lieutenants, as a “refugee Tsar”.
The fiercely loyal Mr Altmaier has long been Mrs Merkel’s go-to fixer in times of trouble. When her policy of phasing out nuclear power foundered in 2012, she sent him to the energy ministry. This time he will have his hands full, because Mrs Merkel is refusing to back down over refugees.
Describing the situation as a “historic test for Europe”, she has warned that if Germany were to close its borders now it would create a crisis across Europe, as country after country followed suit and hundreds of thousands of refugees were left with nowhere to go.
This week Mrs Merkel moved to take concrete steps, passing new asylum laws that released funds for housing and education, but also included some measures designed to assuage criticism on the populist rights, such as substituting the €143 now given to each new migrant with a voucher.
“Merkel has taken a relatively bold stance in last couple of weeks,” says Christian Odendahl, a German expert at Centre for European Reform . “Her challenge is that she needs on the one hand to solve the problem, while retaining her moral authority on the other.
“Merkel has always been seen as a reasonable guardian of German interests and stability, and on this issue she was in a dilemma: she couldn’t be too hawkish on the issue, given the German public consensus on migrants.
“The problem was always bigger than people realised; she held out for a long time, and then realised that she needed to embrace the German public’s position first, before moving on to a proper solution, together with other European countries.
“As long as she manages the problem in a humane way, she will be close to the German consensus. In the end, failure to manage this problem is not an option for her.”
Meanwhile, at the Berlin refugee office, the waiting goes on. The once well-tended courtyard has long turned to ankle-deep mud.
“It was better in Afghanistan,” said Khader Sadat. The 26-year-old came with his wife and children to escape the Taliban. They are relatively lucky: they have a roof over their heads at night. They share a cramped room in a private hostel with two other families, but are allowed to stay for free.
“It’s peaceful here,” says Mr Sadat, but his voice trails off. “It was better in Afghanistan,” he repeated.