Dresden university sheltered migrants despite hostile anti-Muslim sentiments

Dresden – It is not always easy to welcome migrants, especially from war-torn, Muslim-majority countries, in a stronghold city of Germany’s xenophobic movement.

“It’s a difficult situation. We have a minority of people who are against refugees, but a very loud one. That’s part of the reality,” Hans Georg Krauthäuser, the vice rector for academic and international affairs at Dresden University of Technology (TUD) told a group of international journalists that the German Academic Research Service (DAAD) facilitated to tour around the university campus earlier this year.

The capital of eastern German state of Saxony, Dresden is home to the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym Pegida. The anti-immigration and anti-Islam movement held its rallies every Monday since October 2014 in the square called Theatherplatz in front of the Semperoper, Dresden’s historic opera house. At most, the rallies gathered roughly 20,000 protesters, according to media reports.

“This is not good for an international city of science like Dresden,” Krauthäuser added.

After all, Dresden hosts dozens of research facilities and institutions with a roster of international researchers. They are run by all four major German research organizations; the Helmholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association and Europe’s largest organization for application-oriented research, the Fraunhofer Society. Together with TUD as one of the top technical universities in Germany, they make Dresden as one of the three hotspots in the eastern German research and innovation system along with Jena and Berlin.

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The communication acoustics lab of Dresden University of Technology. Photo copyright: DAAD/Robert Lohse

Michael Fristch, chair of business dynamics, innovation and economic change at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in neighboring state of Thuringia, acknowledged that East Germany may not be very friendly to foreigners.

“It’s a legacy of the socialist system,” he said.

However, it didn’t stop TUD to launch a refugee aid program that started in August 2015 by setting up three refugee camps on its campus. Managed by the German Red Cross, the camps hosted a total of 1,220 residents from August to October 2015. By March, the program hosted 300 almost all-male residents, with 66 percent of whom were from Iraq and Syria.

According to Eurocities, the network of major European cities, Dresden welcomed 5,500 people from crisis areas by October 2015. But in contrast to Pegida’s strong sentiments against migrants, the city administration welcomed them with open arms.

In a statement provided to Eurocities website, Dresden mayor Dirk Hilbert said the city wanted to welcome asylum seekers professionally and socially with good-structured programs to avoid them feeling of being sidelined.

TUD picked up the speed to integrate them by organizing activities such as German language courses, winter clothes collections or additional security service, with the help of 600 registered volunteers including students.

For teaching in the language courses, students can get credit points similar to those they would get from an internship, Krauthäuser said.

Tatiana Sandoval-Guzman, a Mexican biologist at the university’s Center for Regenerative Therapies who participated in the program, said they started sewing class for women and kids corner for children.

“We plan to have scientific activities for various age groups of children, despite the language barrier,” she said.

Ulrike Mikolasch, TUD’s refugee aid coordinator said the university offered a limited space for refugees to attend courses free of charge. There were 34 guest students, including 20 from Syria who mostly attended technical and economic studies.

“The main problem is language and other skills that they need to start the course, not the documents,” Krauthäuser said.

Locals also mobilized actions to provide assistance such as introduction to the German language for migrants with the support of more than 80 initiatives. A group of local volunteers were spotted on a spring Friday afternoon teaching German to migrants in a corner of the modern art museum Albertinum near the opera house.

“Integration in the job market or in the education system is one of the most successful ways to integrate into our society. Unemployment, lack of training and no knowledge of the German language have the opposite effect,” Hilbert said.

The city administration and TUD’s efforts to welcome refugees reflected findings of a June 2015 survey by the university that showed most of the locals polled had open attitude towards asylum seekers and only 12 percent agreed with Pegida, while 60.1 percent disagreed. Most of them or 78.6 percent also rejected the idea to prohibit Muslim migrants.

On a larger scale, the first-ever Refugees Welcome Index that global rights group Amnesty International released on May 19 also ranks Germany as the second most welcoming country for refugees after China.

The index was based on people’s willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighborhoods and homes. It surveyed more than 27,000 respondents in 27 countries worldwide, including a national sample of 1,001 respondents in Germany, who were interviewed by phone on February 4-8, 2016 and found that 96 percent Germans said they would accept refugees into their country.

“The survey shows people say they are willing to go to astonishing lengths to make refugees welcome. It also shows how anti-refugee political rhetoric is out of kilter with public opinion,” the report said.

Data from the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, showed Germany has the highest number of first-time asylum applicants registered during the first quarter of 2016, with almost 175,000 applicants or 61 percent of EU’s total. It also had the largest share of pending applicants within the bloc by end of March with 473,000 applicants or 47 percent.

Compared with the population of each member state, Germany had the highest rate of registered applicants during the first quarter 2016, with 2,155 applicants per million inhabitants. The top two countries of the applicants’ citizenship were Syria and Iraq, with 88,515 and 25,550 asylum seekers respectively.

The migrant influx was forecasted to positively impact on the local and regional economy. The EU first assessed the macroeconomic impact on the influx in its autumn 2015 economic forecast released in November last year. It estimated the flow of migrants could boost the region’s gross domestic products of 0.2 to 0.3 percent by 2020 through public spending on matters related to migrant inflows. It expected more positive impact on growth in the medium term when migrants integrate into the labor supply.

The International Monetary Fund said in a May 9 report that Germany could boost its economy if it speeds up structural reforms “by broadening the labor market participation of refugees, women and older workers” and set up new policies as the basis for refugees to integrate into its labor market.

The European Commission’s winter and spring 2016 forecasts also said Germany’s increased public spending to host and integrate asylum seekers would support growth to its moderate economic activity.

But for the university, economic growth was not the reason they welcomed the migrants. TUD’s Krauthäuser said it was understandable migrants who fled wars in their countries wanted to come to “a rich and free country” like Germany.

“If you are a refugee, where would you go? You want to live in peace. It’s quite obvious,” he said.

“We have to help those people just because they need help, not because it is good for the German economy,” Krauthäuser added.

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