Andrew Curry for Al Jazeera America

Escape to Colditz? German mayor bucks local sentiment, welcomes refugees

Officials in Colditz, population 5,000, ask for more refugees despite area’s reputation for anti-immigrant violence

COLDITZ, Germany — Colditz isn’t the first place you might think of sending a newly arrived refugee. The town of 5,000 people is deep in Saxony, a German state that has developed a reputation over the years as a haven for anti-immigrant sentiment and the country’s far right. Saxony has been in the news again for violent anti-refugee riots and arson attacks on shelters set up for asylum seekers.

Yet Mayor Matthias Schmiedel of Colditz, halfway between Leipzig and Dresden, is bucking the area’s reputation. He has spent the last few weeks identifying empty apartments, talking up the advantages that refugees could bring the town — and begging state authorities to send more asylum seekers the town’s way. “We’ve got about two dozen right now, and I think we could take more like 150,” he said in an interview in his city hall office last week. “If we can create a good climate and make them feel comfortable, maybe some of them will want to stay.”

In an irony that’s not lost on Schmiedel, Colditz has long been widely known as a place people wanted to flee. The castle turned World War II POW camp perched on a high bluff overlooking the town witnessed some of the war’s most daring escapes. It is now a museum that draws about 30,000 tourists a year.

Like many other towns in the former East Germany, Colditz has been in a population freefall since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In Colditz and the small towns nearby, 70 more people die each year than are born. A porcelain factory that once employed 1,600 people and supplied plates to hotels across the communist bloc was shuttered and demolished 20 years ago.

Schmiedel says his own kids left years ago for better jobs in Austria and Switzerland. “We’ve lost 2,500 to 3,000 people in the last 25 years, especially in the generation that’s between 30 and 40 now,” he said. “It’s hard for local employers to find workers, and the labor force here is mostly older.” It’s a Germany-wide dilemma: The country’s workforce is expected to shrink by 17 million people by 2050.

Perhaps the refugees and other immigrants going to Germany — some estimates say as many as 800,000 people might apply for asylum in 2015 — could be an opportunity to halt or reverse this seemingly inevitable decline, he said. “We Germans are natural bureaucrats, right? We have to figure out how to manage this flood rather than block it,” he said. “It’s a big chance for towns like Colditz to stabilize.”

Many employers and politicians across Germany are eyeing the refugees as a potential labor pool. In theory, they could be just what Germany needs: 77 percent are of working age, according to an August study by the Nuremburg-based Institute for Employment Research (IAB). “There’s huge hope among employers that migrants will fill the gaps we have due to low fertility,” said sociologist Rainer Ohliger, a co-founder of the Hamburg-based Network Migration in Europe.

Refugees in Germany are being distributed according to a quota system, with states and cities taking a share based on tax base and population. Saxony is responsible under the system for taking in 5 percent of the refugees arriving in the country — about as many as the city of Berlin. The system is based on addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, not the job market. “Refugees don’t always match the skills that are needed one to one,” Ohliger said.

Matthias Schmiedel, mayor of Colditz, Germany.
Andrew Curry for Al Jazeera America

To find people to fill an estimated 600,000 job openings, the Federal Labor Office has hired recruiters and talent scouts to match asylum seekers with employers. Other efforts are more grass roots. A few weeks ago, two Berlin computer science students built a job market website for employers willing to hire refugees. Called Workeer, the site has posted nearly 800 openings — for jobs from mechanics and salespeople to cleaners, health care workers and computer programmers — in just a few weeks.

But finding the right matches might not be easy. Just across the Mulde River from the Colditz City Hall, 34-year-old Eritrean refugee Mengstab Mezelo lives in a sparsely furnished apartment with white-painted walls, worn carpet and a battered couch.

He spent 12 years driving a tank in the Eritrean army before fleeing the country last year. He made the trek to Germany via Sudan and Libya, crossing the Mediterranean to Italy in a boat with 112 other people — “small, small boat. Big sea,” he said, shrugging. He keeps his Eritrean ID, his marriage certificate and a few faded snapshots of his tank crew — the only mementos he has of home — in a small plastic bag. He’s been in Colditz since February, when he was placed there by the state resettlement authority after stints in Hamburg and Elbsbach. Mezelo’s not a mechanic, or engineer, or doctor: His education ended in the 9th grade.

Speaking in a broken mix of German and English while soaking up a stew of carrots and potatoes with homemade flatbread, Mezelo said he’s dreading the end of his state-provided German classes in a few weeks. “Knowing I just have two more weeks of school, I’m not sleeping well,” he said. “I have no profession, but I want to learn — and learn German. We want to work. We want to integrate.”

While Schmiedel dreams of doctors and woodworkers, some experts say Mezelo is more typical of the refugees arriving in Germany. The IAB study, which surveyed 20,000 refugees, found that 58 percent completed no formal education and just 7 percent attended school for more than 13 years.

Finding a place for unskilled workers in Germany’s labor market is tough, and even professionals and university graduates still have to navigate the country’s complex system of licenses and certifications, not to mention the bureaucracy of the asylum application. And language makes the German labor market still tougher to crack. “Even if you’re a trained doctor from Syria, you won’t be able to practice in a hospital until you learn a certain level of German,” Ohliger said.

I remind some of the people complaining today that their parents were refugees. Somehow, we all coped

Matthias Schmiedel

Mayor of Colditz

Over the long term, the IAB found, just 55 percent of refugees who stayed in Germany managed to find work. Changing that will take a major effort — and a cultural shift. “We need programs to train, retrain and qualify people,” said Ohliger. “And we need to be more pragmatic than our regulated German society is used to.”

Small towns like Colditz face other challenges. While large cities like Berlin have sizable immigrant communities and more experience and infrastructure to help newcomers integrate, Germany’s smaller towns — particularly in the former East Germany — are unaccustomed to foreigners. Mezelo and the three other Eritreans he knows in Colditz have to take a bus to a larger town for German language classes.

At the national level, the welcoming attitude expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be enjoying a fragile acceptance. She announced that the country would set aside 6 billion euros (about $6.7 billion), to cope with the refugee crisis.

With more refugees arriving in small towns and big cities every day, optimistic local officials like Schmiedel are an important part of winning over average Germans. At a recent prayer service at the centuries-old St. Giles Church overlooking Colditz’ town square, Schmiedel joined Pastor Angela Lau and prominent local businesspeople in urging Colditz residents to open their doors wider.

Lau, who has started a list of unused church buildings that might be offered up to accommodate refugees, admitted that the reception was cool but that Colditzers were willing to listen. “People still need a lot of convincing,” she said. “But it’s better when they speak up and express their reservations, because then you can have a discussion.”

Whenever Schmiedel can’t sell his constituents on his vision of Colditz’s slightly more multicultural future, he reminds them of the past. After WWII, war-ravaged Germany took in nearly 12 million ethnic Germans pushed out of territories stripped away at the end of the war, such as Silesia and Pomerania.

Some of them wound up crowding into Colditz and never left. “Conditions were terrible back then. If you had said, ‘In 70 years people will want to come to Germany,’ no one would have believed you,” he said. “I remind some of the people complaining today that their parents were refugees. Somehow, we all coped.”

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