Germans are being asked to develop a “welcoming culture” toward refugees. To set an example, one parliamentarian has taken two Eritreans into his house – and he wants to visit Eritrea to find out why they fled.

Martin Patzelt is a backbench parliamentarian with Germany’s center-right governing party, the Christian Democratic Union. He’s a social worker and committed Christian whose engagement in local politics led him to serve as mayor of Frankfurt an der Oder, a small town on the Polish border an hour’s train-ride from Berlin, before he entered federal politics.

A friendly man who seems younger than his 68 years, Patzelt is an outspoken advocate of treating migrants with decency – and he walks the talk: A few months ago, he invited two young Eritrean asylum applicants to live in his family home in the Brandenburg village of Briesen.

But racism and suspicion of foreigners aren’t rare phenomena in eastern Brandenburg, and lately Patzelt has been getting death threats – by email, on his answering machine, in letters.

“One said I should be worked over with a flamethrower until I’m burnt as brown as the ‘niggers’ I’ve brought into my house,” Patzelt said.

“It’s disturbing. I don’t take the threats seriously in the sense of fearing for my own safety – but I take them very seriously as an indication of how some Germans still have a long way to go until they leave racism behind and accept people as individual human beings, regardless of origins.”

Instead of allowing himself to be intimidated, Patzelt has organized community events at which migrants and locals can get acquainted. “I think the way to overcome suspicion and rejection of foreigners is to generate opportunities for people to meet each other and talk,” he told DW.

More are coming

People will continue to flee intolerable conditions: the wars in the Middle East, oppression in totalitarian one-party states such as Eritrea, or the poverty and joblessness in some European countries and in much of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. They’ll try to reach islands of stability and prosperity like Germany.

“The half million or so refugee applicants expected in Germany this year are a harbinger of things to come,” Patzelt said. “This flood of refugees isn’t a brief, passing phenomenon. This is going to continue indefinitely. We need to figure out how to deal with it.”

Patzelt has an idea for how to generate wider acceptance of migrants: “They should work!”

The benefits of work

The law says each application for official refugee status has to be individually processed. But that takes time, and there’s a limited number of adjudicators – so most refugees are housed for months, and some for as long as a couple of years, before their status is decided.

Refugees whose applications are approved gain rights to live and work in Germany essentially equivalent to those of any other citizen. But those whose applications haven’t yet been approved are not be allowed to take normal jobs.

Patzelt beleives that applicants should work without pay while they await a decision. “They’re already being compensated,” he said. “Rent-free apartments to live in, free clothes and furniture, and a modest monthly stipend. In exchange, they should do useful things in the community.”

As a former mayor, Patzelt said he would have no difficulty identifying useful work for applicants to do: “I know what a typical community’s unmet needs are.”

Fixing the problem at the source

German politicians regularly say the best way to reduce asylum applications is to improve the situation in migrants’ countries of origin. Asked what changes Eritrea needs, and whether Germany can do anything to foster them, Patzelt admitted that, although he has two Eritreans living in his house, he doesn’t yet know much about the country.

“They won’t talk about politics,” Patzelt said. “They’re afraid to talk about anything like that. I’m hoping they’ll open up over time.”

He has told the two – to their surprise – that he’d like to travel to Eritrea to meet their parents. That won’t be easy, because the country is largely closed to visitors. Not much is reliably known about internal conditions. Independent journalists aren’t allowed in. Reporters Without Borders puts Eritrea dead last in its Press Freedom Index.

Effectively a one-party state, Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in May 1991 after a 30-year war. Its present government, headed by Isaias Afewerki, was elected in 1993.

Eritrea hasn’t held an election since. Border skirmishes with Ethiopia turned into a war that lasted from 1998 to 2000. A state of emergency was declared, and a planned 2001 election canceled.

The indefinite state of emergency and aggressive universal military conscription of both women and men have led to the emergence of a system in which the military defines much of Eritrean life. Conscripts are often abused as cheap or unpaid labor for military-connected firms. The result: In recent years, around a million people have fled the country, where current population – growing rapidly because of to a high birthrate – is about 6.5 million.

“Ultimately, engagement is probably the best way to foster change,” Patzelt said. German Development Minister Gerd Müller intends to travel to Eritrea soon to assess the situation – and Patzelt hopes to go with him.