Rebuilding Assad’s Syria: Who should foot the bill?

MIDDLE EAST

Though the war in Syria continues, President Bashar Assad and his allies are already planning reconstruction efforts. Russia is demanding money from the rest of Europe. Should Germany contribute?

    
Ruins of Aleppo market (Imago/Xinhua/A. Safarjalani)

Tarek M. speaks with his family in the worn-torn city Aleppo as often as possible. He fled the country in 2015, when he was just 23, traveling on his own through the Balkans to Germany. Because his family remains in Syria, Tarek does not wish to reveal his identity.

Tarek also fled military conscription — he wanted no part in the atrocities carried out by the regime that ruled over the west of the city where he lived with his family.

In eastern Aleppo, the insurgents were able to defy Syrian regime forces for four years until Russia joined the fight for the opposition stronghold. By December 2016, Syria’s government had recaptured the entire city.

Tarek M., a Syrian refugee, in NRW (privat)Tarek fled Syria on his own in 2015

Today President Bashar Assad’s forces, with the help of allies Russia and Iran, control an estimated two-thirds of the country.

“The war in Syria is not over yet,” however, cautions Tarek.

bloody battle is expected for the last insurgent and extremist stronghold, Idlib. If it falls, Assad will emerge victorious.

Many cities around the country now lie in ruins. Since the battle for Aleppo, those who remain in the city continue to live in terrible conditions. Tarek, who now lives and works in the Ruhr region of western Germany, passes on his family’s reports: The infrastructure in Aleppo is devastated; its water and electricity supply perilous.

In the east of the city, the situation is more desperate, he said. The reports from his parents and the photos and videos circulating online paint a picture of a landscape in ruins.

“Talk of reconstructing the east of the city is pointless,” said Tarek. “And even if attempts to rebuild were made, who would receive the funds for it?”

Watch video02:31

Idlib: Syria’s last rebel stronghold

How to rebuild?

The question of reconstruction is both a crucial and complex one. Above all, who should finance it? Neither the Syrian regime nor Iran or Russia want to bear the costs alone.

The United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis, Staffan de Mistura, estimates that roughly $250 billion (€215 billion) would be required to rebuild Syria’s infrastructure. The Syrian government puts the sum as high as $400 billion.

Russia has called on Europe to provide financial aid for reconstruction efforts. Ahead of her meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed Germany’s and Russia’s joint responsibility for a solution to the Syrian crisis. However, the idea of Germany contributing to rebuilding a Syria ruled by Assad does not sit well with many German politicians.

Read moreWhat is Iran’s role in Syria if Assad wins the war?

Nevertheless, the prospect of contributing has not been entirely ruled out in Berlin. In April of this year, for example, at a donor conference for Syria in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stressed that a political solution was a prerequisite for German reconstruction aid. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert also said that Germany intended help in an international effort to rebuild life for regular Syrians.

Berlin Rolf Mützenich (SPD) ( Imago/M. Popow)Mützenich says rebuilding Syria requires international coordination

Speaking to DW, German foreign policy expert Rolf Mützenich of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), reiterated Berlin’s stance that reconstruction must be centered around an international agreement. “One condition [of German contribution] is that there must be a peaceful solution that has been legitimized by the UN,” he said. “A solution that also enables all people who want to return to Syria to be able to do so.”

A ‘more homogeneous’ Syria

Assad himself has left no doubt as to who exactly will be welcome in his future Syria. The human cost of the war has been immense, but the country has gained a “healthier” and “more homogeneous” society, he claimed at a conference in Damascus in 2017.

“My impression is that the Syrian leadership systematically depopulated the areas in which the insurgents were strong,” Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW.

Read moreIdlib’s civilians in survival mode for Syrian assault

This strategic motivation is substantiated by the new Law No. 10, which allows the Syrian government to confiscate the property of citizens who have fled abroad if they do not lodge their claims inside the country within a year. The situation leaves open the possibility for a biased distribution of rebuilding resources — favoring areas with Assad regime sympathizers while ignoring areas for the refugees who want to return.

But what can returning refugees really expect from Assad? If they have fled from rebel strongholds, or are known to be opponents of the regime, then “they can expect to be arrested, tortured and killed,” said Steinberg.

Putin and Assad in Sochi (picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/M. Klimentyev)Putin helped Assad turn the tide of the war in Syria, and is calling on Europe for help in rebuilding the country

The refugee angle

Putin often mentions the prospect of repatriating Syrian refugees currently in Europe as part of his push for a joint reconstruction effort in the country. The Russian leader knows well how divisive the issue has been in Germany and the European Union.

That approach has drawn criticism, in particular from Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy parliamentary party leader of Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). Russia is already financially depleted from its military engagement in Syria, he told Die Welt newspaper, and would thus not be a main player in the reconstruction. “This must not lead to us repairing the roads bombed by Russia and then deporting the refugees via Assad’s henchmen to torture chambers,” Graf Lambsdorff said. Germany must make concrete demands of Russia, he added, but convincing leaders in Moscow of the need for a UN-led political solution is likely to be difficult at this stage.

Steinberg believes that Germany may well eventually participate in the reconstruction of Syria, but doing so is only certain “if there is the possibility, or even just the prospect, of sending refugees back.”

For the time being, returning refugees to the country they were driven from is not an option, said the SPD’s Mützenich.

Even if the political will were there, carrying out those repatriations would be practically impossible, according to Bernd Mesovic of the refugee aid group Pro Asyl. In an attempt to speed up the asylum process, many of the refugees who arrived in Germany in 2014 and 2015 did not sufficiently specify their reasons for leaving their homeland, he explained, making it often impossible to know from which warring faction people fled.

Watch video42:34

Syria’s disappeared: the case against Assad

Reservations and difficult questions

Mützenich believes the focus should be on figuring out how international organizations and UN member states can best participate in reconstruction and under what terms.

Roughly half-a-million Syrians have been killed by regime forces and their allies over the past seven years. Such staggering destruction has critics asking: Is giving Assad financial support for reconstruction in Syria tantamount to complicity?

Read moreSyrian detainee No. 72’s tales of torture

“The money would not benefit the normal citizens who are the most in need, but only Assad’s friends,” argued Tarek, who because he fled military service would face imprisonment if he were to return to post-war Syria.

Mützenich understands the hesitation over entering into a reconstruction effort with the Syrian government, but believes it could ultimately be in the best interests of regular Syrians. “If you approach it from this position alone, which is morally justified, little will be achieved in a practical sense,” he said. “In the end, maintaining this stance is not fair on the people who want to try to live in their homeland.”

Steinberg considers German participation in the reconstruction of Syria — under all circumstances — to be wrong. Neither Damascus, nor Tehran, nor Moscow would ever again take Germany seriously as a foreign or security policy power, he said. It was always the motivation of Iran and Russia to stabilize the Assad regime and garner new prestige, Steinberg added, “and we would thus be promoting the war aims of criminals.”

COURTESY: DW

Migration ‘mother of all political problems,’ says German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer

NEWS

The German minister has claimed migration is at the heart of society’s disillusionment with politics. Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, said she would have put it a bit differently and called migration a “challenge.”

    
A backlit person sitting on the side of a boat (picture-alliance/AP Photo/ANSA/C. Fusco)

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, head of the CSU, the conservative sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, has said that migration was the “mother of all political problems” in Germany and one of the principal reasons for waning support for the established parties, German media report.

“Many people now associate their social problems with the issue of migration,” he told the Rheinische Post, adding that if Germany didn’t change its migration policy, major political parties would continue losing ground. He went on to link the “order of humanity” with balancing the political concerns of migrants and Germans.

Merkel: That’s not how I’d put it

Merkel, however, said she would put it differently than her interior minister.

“I say that the question of migration poses challenges,” she said in an interview with RTL television, adding that there are problems and success that come with the challenges of migration.

Merkel, who when addressing the more than 1 million refugees coming to Europe in 2015 said, “We can do this,”has drawn intense criticism — including from within the conservative coalition she’s a part of — over what has been called her open-door policy toward refugees.

Merkel added that protests in Chemnitz showed both people “filled with hate aimed at other people” and “how people stand up to xenophobia and racism.”

“It is a tense situation in which, I believe, everyone needs to take a position,” she added.

Seehofer, who sparked a major row within the governing coalition earlier this year with his uncompromising stance on migration, had been criticized for not condemning the far-right protests after the killing of a German man in Chemnitz. He was killed after a brawl allegedly involving two asylum-seekers believed to be from Syria and Iraq.

Watch video26:00

The far right: Can Germany defeat its demons?

Not ‘blind’ to far-right extremism

Seehofer told Rheinische Post that people who do the Hitler salute — like some of the protesters — would be prosecuted and that the CSU party was not blind “in its right eye.”

However, he said he could understand why people were upset about the killing and that taking to the streets does not make them Nazis, according to Die Welt newspaper.

He said if he was not a minister, he would have taken to the streets, too, but “obviously not with the radicals,” he added.

Merkel, meanwhile, sharply condemned the radical protesters, saying that “we have seen pictures [from Chemnitz] that clearly showed hate and the persecution of innocent people.”

Saxony’s premier, Michael Kretschmer, however, insisted that there had been no “mobs, hounding or pogroms” in Chemnitz, leading some to accuse him of trivializing far-right extremism in the eastern state.

Watch video05:15

German journalists targeted by far-right

COURTESY: DW

Italy’s Salvini: Merkel has underestimated the challenges of migration

EUROPE

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini says the German government has been underestimating the risk of social conflict over migration for years. DW spoke with him as his government marks 100 days in office.

    
Matteo Salvini, Innenminister Italien (DW/A. DeLoore)

Italian politician Matteo Salvini is the head of the country’s far-right League party, which formed a populist coalition alongside the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in June. In addition to his post as interior minister, Salvini serves as deputy prime minister to Giuseppe Conte, a newcomer to politics chosen by both parties as their head of government.

DW: After 100 days as part of a new government, do you feel like you have addressed Italy’s most pressing issues, such as poverty and unemployment?

Matteo Salvini: I am very happy with the 100 days. Under my remit, which is security, immigration, and public security, we have achieved extraordinary results. Regarding employment, taxes and pensions, in the autumn the new government will make its mark, with a new path, change, growth, so I’m not worried about data for this period. We are already working on growth, which should finally rebound.

Read more: Italy’s popular populists

International markets seem skeptical though. The famous “spread,” that is the risk premium for Italian bonds, has doubled since you came to power. How do you explain that?

There are people who are speculating. There are also people who are against us. Our government is free and independent from the multinationals, from big finance, from banking powers — both international and European. We have no fears. The Italian economy is sound. Italian business is sound. So the economic reforms will provide all the answers that the so-called markets and the lords of the “spread” are waiting for.

It seems like Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is not very present. You are more present than he is. Do you feel like you are the real head of the government?

No, we have two different personalities. He is a man of mediation and listening. He visited Donald Trump. He will go to China. He attends the European summits. I am deputy prime minister, along with Luigi di Maio [of the 5-Star party] . We are party leaders. So it’s clear that due to our characters and our roles we tend to be more present, but we are a good team.

Let’s turn to the European Union and the topic of migration. You seem at odds with the EU on some points. Do you feel like the goal going forward is to find a compromise with the EU or are you on confrontation course?

Even though I am often described as a hooligan, I am always trying to reason, to discuss, to ask questions. Take the  revision of the Treaty of Dublin and Operation Sophia for instance. We are making proposals, we are waiting, we are suggesting. It is clear that I had to stop the migrant landings. Last year in the period up to August, 100,000 migrants arrived and the European Union did little or nothing. This year we had fewer than 20,000 landings, and the European Union is still doing little or nothing. So I am still willing to debate, but more recently, we’ve also been talking with some non-European countries, such as Albania, Serbia and Montenegro.

Salvini with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban during a meeting at the end of August in MilanSalvini with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban during a meeting at the end of August in Milan

On the issue of migration, you recently agreed to form an alliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. And yet you’ve stated that you want to see redistribution of migrants across the EU. Orban doesn’t want that – but German Chancellor Angela Merkel does. So aren’t you closer to Merkel than Orban on this?

I’m trying to get something good out of everybody. Victor Orban talks about defending Europe’s borders, about protection in the countries of origin and investment in Africa, and I agree with him. Angela Merkel is proposing a redistribution inside Europe, and I can agree even with this position in the very near future. What we have to do is help these people so that they don’t flee their countries. We should be rapidly investing 500 million euros in Africa. I believe that both Germany and Hungary are right regarding certain issues.

You’ve seen what’s been happening in Chemnitz, Germany at the moment, with the extreme right, and with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Some are blaming Angela Merkel, saying that this is the result of the migration crisis. Do you agree?

I would say that Angela Merkel certainly underestimated the risk of a social clash when she claimed that there was space for hundreds of thousands of people in Germany. I still remember what happened during the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne in 2015, and also elsewhere. However, violence is never a solution! Violence calls for violence, but the German government has been underestimating the problem for years, and the rise of the AfD is clearly a reaction.

Your government has been in office for 100 days now. Do you think it will hold another year?

Yes, I think that this government will have a long life if it respects its obligations to the Italian people.

Is it harder than you thought it would be?

(Laughing) I’m happy that I can finally participate in what is happening.

Is it harder than you thought it would be, yes or no?

Well, it is not easy. Italy is a big country. We have important challenges to face, but I was tired of being in the opposition.

COURTESY: DW

Refugees Become Pawns in Syria’s Bid for Foreign Aid

Assad regime is slowing the return of Syrians as it seeks to secure reconstruction funds from West and end sanctions

A woman walks near a row of tents in a refugee settlement in the Lebanese city of Arsal on July 16. Some 70,000 Syrians live here, about twice as many as the town’s residents.

ARSAL, Lebanon—As the Assad regime moves to take control of Syria’s last opposition strongholds, the government and its foreign backers are calling on millions of refugees who fled the bloody conflict to come home.

But obstacles the regime is throwing up to their return show that President Bashar al-Assad —mindful of the strain refugees are putting on neighboring countries—is willing to use the exiles as bargaining chips to secure foreign aid and sanctions relief, Western diplomats and analysts in Beirut say.

The Syrian government in recent months has postponed or declined without explanation hundreds of applications from refugees in Lebanon seeking to go back, according to several Western diplomats briefed on the matter.

Samaher Bakor, who fled Syria with her husband and two small children five years ago, standing outside her tent in Arsal. They left for Syria on Monday, after waiting two months for permission to return.
Samaher Bakor, who fled Syria with her husband and two small children five years ago, standing outside her tent in Arsal. They left for Syria on Monday, after waiting two months for permission to return.

Returnees need identification and family papers, which many left behind during their flight, and approval to travel in Syrian government convoys. Security-clearance procedures are lengthy. Many men have been rejected, so their wives and children stayed back as well, the diplomats said.

As a result, the returns so far are little more than a trickle. Since early June, in Lebanon, where more than a million Syrians live, only about 1,400 of 3,000 Syrians who have applied to return have departed, including about 1,000 this week, according to the Lebanese intelligence agency. The rest are awaiting word from Damascus on their petition to return.

More than five million Syrians have fled since the uprising began in 2011. Most settled in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Assad regime, which is carrying out an offensive in the country’s southwest backed by Russian airstrikes, officially says refugees should return to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

“The Syrian government wants to use [the refugees] as a bargaining chip,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an independent Beirut-based think tank. “It wants payment and is monetizing them. Not all of which would necessarily go towards reconstruction.”

Outward Wave

The Syrian war has pushed millions into neighboring countries since its start in 2011…

Sources: Turkish government, UNHCR (Turkey); UNHCR (all others)

The Syrian government didn’t respond to a request to comment. This month, an unnamed Syrian foreign ministry official told the Syrian state news agency SANA that the regime expects the international community to contribute toward resettling them.

Russia has called on the U.S. and the European Union to help rebuild Syria and resettle refugees. Moscow this month invited the U.S. to cooperate on a plan to return refugees to Syria. The proposals, which were submitted after the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, included collaboration in funding “the restoration of Syria’s infrastructure,” according to the Russian government.

U.S. officials haven’t publicly commented on whether Washington would support the proposal. Top U.S. military officials have said they aren’t changing the U.S. posture in Syria. In a briefing with reporters Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was “considering” meeting with his Russian counterpart.

European countries insist that before they allocate aid through Damascus, or funds to rebuild Syria, a political transition process must be under way, although they haven’t specified whether that would require Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Still, the Syrian regime is looking to leverage the fact that neighboring and European countries are anxious to see the refugees return. Indeed, Lebanon—where Syrian refugees constitute 20% of the population—has complained about the burden of hosting such large numbers of refugees and has prevented the vast majority of them from settling permanently in the country.

A group of Syrian refugees drink tea outside their tent in Arsal.
A group of Syrian refugees drink tea outside their tent in Arsal.

The Lebanese government has criticized the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides services for refugees in informal settlements in Lebanon, for instilling fear in the refugees of returning to Syria. The UNHCR says it respects people’s choice to return, but isn’t assisting them in going back.

In Arsal, where refugees number about twice as many as the town’s residents, some 70,000 Syrians live in shabby tarpaulin tents and have few legal rights, including authorization to work. Many speak of harassment and arbitrary arrests by Lebanese authorities. Schooling and health care are poor. Families share toilets that are little more than a hole in the ground.

Samaher Bakor and her husband fled Syria more than five years ago with their two small children and had until recently spent all those years abroad in Arsal. They applied for permission to return to Syria nearly two months ago and sat for days with their meager belongings packed in an old truck as they awaited word. On Monday, they departed for Syria.

Hussein, center, lives in a refugee settlement in Arsal. He hopes to return to Syria for good soon, but fears punishment from the Assad government for fleeing.
Hussein, center, lives in a refugee settlement in Arsal. He hopes to return to Syria for good soon, but fears punishment from the Assad government for fleeing.

“Of course, we are a little scared but my relatives say it’s safe to come back,” Ms. Bakor said before the family left. “In Syria, schools are free, hospitals are free. Here everything requires so much money.”

The refugees who do return face an uncertain fate. Continued fighting in parts of Syria has displaced over 1.2 million Syrians inside the country so far this year, according to UNHCR.

And many fear regime retaliation for having fled the country in the first place. One refugee who departed from Lebanon in June, Hussein Mohammad Audi, was killed shortly after arriving in his hometown of Fleeta. His family said he was shot and dumped at his front door by militias affiliated with the government.

“The regime brands everyone who left Syria a terrorist,” warned Salem Mohammad Rahmoun, another refugee originally from Ras al-Ain in southwest Syria and now living in Arsal.

Ibrahim al Rifai, left, from Ras al Maara, Syria, doesn’t have papers needed to leave the Arsal refugee settlement and return home.
Ibrahim al Rifai, left, from Ras al Maara, Syria, doesn’t have papers needed to leave the Arsal refugee settlement and return home. PHOTO: LORENZO TUGNOLI / THE WALL STREE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Two other men, aged 50 and 70, were also killed by regime militia fighters after they returned, Arsal residents said.

The Assad government hasn’t commented on the alleged killings.

Still, many Syrian refugees eventually want to go home.

Two weeks ago, Hussein, a Syrian in his 30s, sneaked across Lebanon’s border with Syria into the no man’s land between the two countries to meet his brother for the first time in seven years. As they embraced, “we both cried,” he said.

Although Hussein, who declined to give his full name, fears punishment from the Assad government for fleeing, he soon hopes to return for good.

“I don’t want my son to grow up in this camp to become some thug robbing people with a razorblade,” he said. “Bashar al-Assad can run me over with a tank as long as my son gets to go to school.”

A refugee settlement in Arsal on a July evening.
A refugee settlement in Arsal on a July evening.

COURTESY: WSJ

Afghan asylum seeker deported from Germany commits suicide

An Afghan man deported from Germany has been found dead in a hotel room in Kabul after apparently committing suicide. The case highlights the adverse circumstances faced by Afghan returnees.

    
Afghanistan abgeschobene Flüchtlinge aus Deutschland kommen in Kabul an (Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar)

A failed Afghan asylum seeker deported from Germany on July 4, 2018, killed himself in a Kabul guesthouse on Tuesday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told DW. The 23-year-old man was staying at a hotel used by the IOM as temporary accommodation for returnees.

“We can confirm that a 23-year-old Afghan, who was deported to Afghanistan along with 68 other Afghans on July 4, 2018, killed himself on Tuesday,” Masood Ahmadi from the IOM said.

Read more: Afghan refugees in Pakistan face mass deportation

The deportee, who has not been identified by officials, was waiting to travel to western Herat Province, according to Ahmadi. An official investigation into the incident is underway.

Mirwis Hashimi, another deportee from Germany staying at the same guesthouse, was among the first people to reach the room where the man hanged himself. “The whole building smelled bad. The police were called. When we went upstairs we saw that he had hanged himself,” he told DW.

“His body had swollen and smelled bad. It was in very bad condition,” he added.

Sent to an alien home

In 2016, the German government signed a deal with Kabul to repatriate Afghans who had failed to obtain asylum, and began expelling people in December 2016. So far this year, Germany has deported 148 Afghans to areas it considers safe.

Germany had initially said it would deport failed asylum seekers who had failed to provide documents about their identity or committed a crime. German chancellor Angela Merkel recently stated that Berlin was no longer limiting deportations to Afghanistan to people convicted of crimes.

Read more: Calls to rethink German refugee policy on Afghanistan

In the present case, however, authorities in the German city of Hamburg, where the Afghan asylum seeker had lived prior to his deportation, confirmed that the deportee in question had been convicted of theft, attempted bodily harm, resisting law enforcement officials and violation of the narcotics act. He was also charged with committing robbery and grievous bodily harm, a spokesperson for Hamburg’s foreigners office was quoted by Germany’s DPA news agency as saying.

While Merkel’s decision to boost deportations to Afghanistan made her conservative coalition partners in the government happy, critics say Berlin is sending Afghans back to difficult conditions and with no proper measures in place to support returnees.

The IOM provides temporary accommodation for Afghan deportees and helps them travel to a different province if they choose not to stay in Kabul. Hashimi, however, told DW that the support provided was not sufficient. “We are provided accommodation for just 15 days. They will ask us to leave after that. This is very difficult for me because I don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.

“It is a scandalous act that Germany is even deporting Afghans who had been living in Germany for years to a government in Afghanistan which is already overburdened with the returnees from Iran and Pakistan,” German refugee organization Pro Asyl told DW.

Some of the deportees have spent most of their lives living outside of Afghanistan before being deported. Many others have either sold or lost all their belongings to afford the trip to Germany. Going back to Afghanistan, they say, means they have to start from scratch in a country they fled long ago.

According to Pro Asyl, these asylum seekers find it difficult to rent an apartment or get a job after being sent back to Afghanistan.

DW | Politics

@dw_politics

This is how German Interior Minister Horst describes today’s deportation of Afghan migrants:

Is Afghanistan safe?

The German government insists there are safe zones across war-ravaged Afghanistan where returnees could live in peace and security. Cities like Herat, Kabul and Balk are among these so-called safe zones. But the situation on the ground is different from the picture painted by Berlin, critics lament.

According to data released by the US government, the Taliban control 14 percent of Afghan districts while 30 percent more are contested between insurgents and Afghan security forces. Against this backdrop, Afghan asylum seekers contend that even if they were deported, they would have no other option but to again flee the conflict-stricken nation.

The German government, however, seems unconvinced. Recent comments made by the nation’s conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer seem to suggest that he will continue to push for more deportations to Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Seehofer finally got to present his migration “master plan,” a month after it was blocked at the last minute by Chancellor Merkel, precipitating a crisis in the German government that almost cost both of them their jobs.

Seehofer pointed out that the delayed release of his plans came on his 69th birthday, noting that this coincided with the deportation of 69 people to Afghanistan from Germany, quipping, “That was not on my order.”

Abdul Azim Sultani, who had lived in the southern German state of Bavaria for three years and was among the latest group of deportees, told DW that he was not sure where to go and if he could survive in Afghanistan. “I really cannot live here. They tell me to live in other provinces. No province is safe. There are suicide attacks in Kabul regularly,” Sultani said. “I don’t have anyone here to help me. I have nowhere to live,” he added.

Hussian Sirat and Waslat Hasrat Nazimi contributed to this story.

COURTESY: DW

Austria brings hard-line refugee policy to EU as migrants at home face more hurdles

Austria assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, and its chancellor has made refugee policy a key issue. Currently, migrants in the country who don’t learn enough German face cuts in benefits.

    
German language course in Austria (DW/C. Martens)

Every morning, Waltraud Gsell teaches German to refugees at Diakonie, a protestant social welfare organization in Vienna. Students from Syria, Afghanistan, Serbia and Iran sit in her current class. One of them, Emmanuel, is taking his second three-month language course. The young Iranian has lived in Vienna for two years and his German has become quite good.

Learning German is very important for me,” Emmanuel says, “so I can speak with friends, and find work later on.”

Language key to integration

Everyone in Gsell’s class has a story to tell. The students quickly learn to trust one another and open up a little bit, she says, stressing how important it is that they feel comfortable. “They are very hard-working and motivated,” Gsell says. “They came here under the worst of circumstances, they all face difficult situations — but every morning, my students show up here with their homework done.”

Iranian German language student Emmanuel (DW/C. Martens)Iranian student Emmanuel says learning German is important if he wants to find work in Austria

That, the she says, never fails to impress her.

Michael Chalupka, who heads Diakonie in Austria, says that their “Integration from day 1” project has been successful thus far. “We also offer language classes for asylum-seekers — not just once they are approved, but from the start.” That greatly simplifies integration he adds, explaining that asylum procedures often take up to two years — much too long to wait for language training.

Read moreAustrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz: The EU’s new power broker?

Lately, he has been worried about the new plans the country’s right-wing government has for refugees, which he believes could hamper people’s ability to quickly integrate into Austrian society.

Aid organizations warn of rise in child poverty

Chalupka is very critical of refugee policy in general under hard-line Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which includes reducing language classes for migrants nationwide while introducing language tests on an advanced-learner level for those who have been officially granted asylum status. Under a proposed law, families will only receive full welfare benefits of €863 ($1,007) if they successfully pass a challenging language test. Refugees who flunk the exam are to receive €300 less.

Michael Chalupka, Diakonie (DW/C. Martens)Chalupka is critical of the hard-line approach Austria’s government has taken when it comes to refugees

Kurz and his conservative party’s junior coalition partners, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), have announced a plan to put an end to “migration into the Austrian welfare system” once and for all.

Read moreAsylum benefits in the EU: How member states compare

“That is absurd,” says Chalupka. “You can’t reduce the number of language classes and at the same time demand that foreigners speak German at a very advanced level.” They are deliberately aiming at the weakest link, and those are mainly foreigners, he adds.

Chalupka believes such policy will have grave consequences, including a rise in child poverty. A few hundred euros more or less can make a huge difference in a city like Vienna, which has limited and expensive housing. “Draft laws can’t possibly be allowed to push people toward homelessness,” he says.

Basic rights on merit?

Language experts, too, say that tying basic human rights to social benefits is highly problematic. Verena Plutzar of SprachenRechte, a language rights network, who has more than 10 years of experience with people learning German, is convinced the level of the planned language tests is too high. Special vocabulary would be called for that students as a rule only know after an average two years of intensive language training. That, she say, is not doable for adult refugees.

DW-Reportage aus Wien | Flüchtlinge & Integration | Regierungssitz (DW/C. Martens)In July, Austria took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a post it will hold for six months

The move is out of proportion and it violates exam ethics, says Plutzar, explaining that conditions would simply not be fair. In the end, nobody’s livelihood should be endangered because of a language test — which is exactly what might happen, she explains. A migrant who does not pass the test loses a basic right, “a grave consequence for the person’s daily life,” says Plutzar.

Read moreEurope can’t take in ‘new wave of refugees,’ says Austrian conservative MP

The FPÖ’s EU representatives have not responded to interview requests by DW, but Vienna-born Monika Vana, a European lawmaker for the Green party, says the draft law is anti-European through and through. It is an attack on the welfare state, and Chancellor Kurz is tacitly accepting a threat to social peace in Europe, she says. The planned cuts also fuel the image of refugees as the enemy, Vana argues, adding that the idea of basic benefits for just a select few runs counter to EU legislation as well as Austria’s constitution.

Austria holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the next six months. At least where refugee policy is concerned, the hard-line approach taken by the government in Vienna is a clear indicator of its plans for the rest of Europe

COURTESY: DW

Germany divided: 5 snapshots of discontent in a wealthy country

Germany is a very affluent country. The average German earns €3,771 ($4,400) a month and has a life expectancy of more than 80 years. So why is there so much quarreling? DW criss-crossed the nation in search of answers.

    
German flags on a balcony (imago/Schöning)

Cottbus: ‘Our government doesn’t act — it reacts’

You wouldn’t guess from Cottbus’ restored historic city center that at the start of this year this city of 100,000 declared a moratorium on migrants because residents felt overwhelmed. If anything, it feels somewhat underpopulated and empty.

But head to the outlying district of Sachsendorf, and you’ll see evidence of the fact that the proportion of foreigners increased from 2.2 to 8.5 percent in Cottbus in only two years. Women wearing headscarves and young men speaking Arabic are no rarity in this lower-class neighborhood with its Communist-era pre-fab apartment blocks, small shopping centers and otherwise very European-looking populace.

The neighborhood of Sachsendorf in Cottbus (DW/J. Chase)The big apartment blocks of Sachsendorf are typical of outlying districts in many eastern German cities

There have been several prominent instances of migrant violence. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party holds up places like Sachsendorf as typical of a Germany being “flooded” by dangerous foreigners. That’s the advertised theme of a podium discussion the AfD is hosting back in the city center. The 200-odd people in the audience are there to vent their anger at what they repeatedly call a “loss of control” over politics and society. And the person they vent it at is Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The biggest problem is the government,” Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD chairman in the eastern state of Brandenburg, says. “It doesn’t act, it reacts. And the result is a colorful bouquet of political problems. The most important issues in our country, from the refugee question to social problems, don’t get addressed.”

Read moreCottbus grapples with violence between refugees and residents

For Kalbitz and his supporters the way forward is clear: Get rid of Merkel, deport nearly all of the people they say entered Germany illegally under the pretext of asylum and empower the people over the politicians. But which people? Parallel to the AfD event, another crowd of roughly 200 people gather for an event entitled “Integration by involving refugees in everyday life.”

Sozialarbeiterin Julianne Meyer und Flüchtling Hassan (DW/J. Chase)Hassan from Syria volunteers his time to help other refugees

In the audience is Juliana Meyer. She coordinates scores volunteers from Cottbus who help migrants fit in. Meyer scoffs at the city’s moratorium on refugees, saying that it has prevented “only around 30” people from moving there.

Many migrants also donate their time as a way of repaying German society for its generosity, she adds. As living proof, she’s brought Hassan, a Syrian refugee who’s well on his way toward learning German and who helps his fellow asylum-seekers by translating and filling out necessary state forms.

“The biggest problem is that people don’t talk to one another enough and don’t debate things properly with objective arguments and issues we all care about,” Meyer tells DW. But when asked if she’d sit down with the AfD, she says no. For her the party, whose leaders flirt with taboo racist language, is too closely associated with “misanthropic and xenophobic” positions to be a legitimate discussion partner.

Watch video03:48

Migration protests in east German city of Cottbus

Both the social worker and the AfD politician agree that Germany is deeply divided. Perhaps more surprisingly, they both speak of social divisions, like disparities in wealth and unequal educational opportunities — and not only of the native-migrant distinction. But the chances of them exchanging views, to say nothing of reaching any common middle ground, are zero.

“It’s a shame,” says Hassan, when asked what he thinks about Germany’s social divisions, although he too believes the far-right populists are racists.

Author: Jefferson Chase

The presence of so many foreigners represents a challenge to a small city like Cottbus, but what about Germany’s cosmopolitan capital Berlin? To find out we went, not to a techno club, but to that most quintessentially German of locations: an allotment garden.

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COURTESY: DW