Rarely has Angela Merkel been so directly confronted with the consequences of her own politics. But an emotional encounter with a young Palestinian left her momentarily speechless and unable to adequately explain to the girl why she faces the threat of deportation.
In a televised meeting that has gone viral, the German chancellor rubs the shoulder of a sobbing teenager after telling her she was one of “thousands and thousands” of refugees that her country was unable to help.
As the number of refugees arriving in Germany rises by the month – and already this year the number of asylum applications, at 450,000, is more than twice the total for the whole of 2014 – the issue is one of the most keenly debated topics in the country.
So it was not a surprise that it was on the agenda on Wednesday as Merkel met a group of 14- to 17-year-olds in the gymnasium of their school in the northern city of Rostock.
During the discussion, entitled “Good life in Germany”, Reem, a Palestinian, told Merkel in fluent German that she and her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, face the threat of deportation.
She said: “I have goals like anyone else. I want to study like them ... it’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.”
Merkel responded by saying she understood, but that “politics is sometimes hard. You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come ... we just can’t manage it.”
The chancellor said she hoped the decision-making process, as to which refugees could stay and which must return, would soon be made quicker. But she was forced to stop mid-sentence, and muttered “oh Gott”, on seeing that Reem was crying. She walked up to the girl and started stroking her shoulder, saying: “You were great ... I know it’s difficult for you and you presented extremely well the situation that many others find themselves in.”
The incident, which was trending on Twitter as #MerkelStreichelt (Merkel strokes), coincided with the publication of new data showing that German towns and cities are straining to find appropriate accommodation for the large numbers of refugees entering the country, most of them via Bavaria in the south. Everything from soldiers’ barracks and empty school buildings to camping sites, shipping containers and sports halls are being used to accommodate them.
Eva Lohse, the president of the German Association of Cities, said on Thursday: “We’re reaching the limits of our capacity.”
As tensions mount in some communities over locals’ fears of being overrun, there have been several arson attacks on a number of refugee shelters in recent weeks, with reports at the weekend of a home near Leipzig being shot at on two consecutive nights. Police have described nearly all of the attacks as driven by xenophobia.
Bavaria’s interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, told of the strain that some communities on the Bavarian border were under as they struggled to cope with the constant stream of refugee arrivals.
He told Deutschlandfunk on Thursday: “Just in this past week, we’ve had more than 5,000 people newly arrived, most of them from the Balkans and most of whom have just been dumped at the side of the road by people smugglers. We have to find suitable accomodation for all of them.”
- This article was amended on 16 and 17 July 2015. The headline and subheading were changed to more accurately reflect Angela Merkel’s comments, and the body text to clarify that a decision to deport Reem’s family has not yet been made, and to correct the word “sympathetic” to “nice” in a quote from Merkel.