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Small German town fights housing for refugees

  • February 02, 2023

A wooden board painted with garish red letters greets everyone arriving in Upahl. “Upahl says no” reads the sign at the entrance to the small community in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, north-eastern Germany.

The “no” refers to a planned accommodation facility for 400 refugees and asylum seekers, which is due to be built in the town of 1,600 residents. The site where the so-called “container village” of temporary housing is planned is close to the entrance to the village.

On this January morning, there is barely a person to be seen in Upahl. Industrial buildings lie silent on both sides of the street — a rubber factory, a creamery, a second-hand tractor yard, with a field of solar panels in between.

Some residents are shopping in the local bakery. “We know that they need to go somewhere,” the saleswoman says when asked about the asylum seekers. “But why put everyone here? How are we supposed to manage that?” A customer nods in agreement.

When journalists ask around the village, people are standoffish when it comes to the topic of the planned facility. Nobody really wants to talk about it – there is clear skepticism of mainstream media.

The building site for the planned temporary housing for refugees
This site has been earmarked for the construction of temporary refugee homesImage: Bernd Wüstneck/dpa/picture alliance

Riots at the district assembly

Just a few days ago, Upahl made headlines across Germany. According to police, about 700 people protested outside the offices where local authorities had met in nearby Grevesmühlen to discuss the container village for Upahl. Most of the protesters remained peaceful. However, a group that included known right-wing extremists from the region attempted to force its way into the meeting room, and some people even threw fireworks. In the end, 120 officers shielded the building, a police spokesperson said.

“Yes, that was all over the media again,” says the woman at the ticket counter at the train station in Grevesmühlen as she patiently hands over a printed bus timetable, following with a polite nod toward the exit. It is from here that the bus departs for the district hub of Wismar, a port town on the Baltic coast.

It is there Tino Schomann has his office. He is the district administrator for the Nordwestmecklenburg area and supports the establishment of the container village. Since the protest, many more media representatives than usual have been knocking on his door. Between his many political and press appointments, Schomann finds time to return DW’s call. 

Tino Schomann
Tino Schomann is the district administrator supporting the establishment of the container villageImage: Norman Seitz

Plenty of space, few resources

“I understand people’s fears,” he says. But there is no alternative. “I am assigned about 20 to 30 asylum seekers per month. We are housing these people in gyms,” he explains.

In Germany, people applying for asylum are distributed across the country according to an agreed formula and assigned to reception centers. They live there while their status is decided upon, which in some cases can take up to two years. They are not allowed to move on during this time, but more people continue to arrive. 

Schomann says that what he needs to bring the situation under control again is for fewer people to be assigned to his district. And for those whose request for asylum has been deniedto be deported, to make space for newcomers.

It is not only Schomann who has come forward — other districts have also stressed that they are reaching their limits. “I have the impression that the response from citizens, as well as colleagues, is: ‘we are glad someone has spoken out’.”

According to Schomann, Germany’s federal government needs to finally recognize how serious the situation has become: “Money does not help us, we need the resources and possibilities to be able to fulfill the task that has been assigned to the local municipalities.”

“People are currently burdened with many crises — the energy crisis, inflation, war,” says Green Party politician Rene Fuhrwerk in Wismar. “That triggers fears, then the people look for someone to blame, and it is often refugees and asylum seekers,” he explained, even if they are not the cause of local people’s struggles.

Fuhrwerk pleads for “solidarity and human dignity,” for asylum seekers. He sees a massive challenge: “The burden has increased gradually since thousands of refugees came in 2015. At the same time no new affordable housing has been created. And now everything has slowly become occupied,” explains Fuhrwerk. “The war in Ukraine is only now revealing this.”

fence outside a bloc of apartments, laminated notes are hanging on it, each bearing one word. Together they read
‘We don’t want this’ reads a message hung on a fence along the main street Image: Anne Höhn/DW

No compromise in sight

Back in Upahl. On a fence along the main street hangs a series of notes — they are laminated so they do not disintegrate in the rain — and each printed with one word. In a long row, they form sentences: “Where are the spaces in daycare for children? Where is the medical care? Where is the appropriate infrastructure?” and finally “We don’t want this.” 

The nearest supermarket is a 20-minute bus ride away, and the closest doctor’s clinic is also not directly in the village. Compared to other German communities of its size, Upahl is not very well-connected. The fear of being left behind is palpable here. Anger over decades of underinvestment in infrastructure is mixed for some with a fear of change that the influx of 400 people might cause. The fact that well-known right-wing extremists from the region are further fueling the fears to win influence simply exacerbates the problem.

For the moment, it seems as if the container village will be established un Upahl – despite the protests. Discussion groups and meetings are planned in Wismar and surrounding areas in the coming weeks. These are also an attempt to gain support from locals for housing to be built. Because of the developments at the end of January, all meetings will take place under police protection.

This article was originally written in German.

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