Like many industrial cities in Germany, Salzgitter, in the northern state of Lower Saxony, has seen better days.
The sprawling municipality’s largest employer, Volkswagen, has been hurt by the diesel emissions cheating scandal and international pressure to cut emissions with electric cars — which in turn has cut into Salzgitter’s income from taxes and jobs.
City officials say thousands of Syrian refugees who have moved to Salzgitter are making things worse, overwhelming government-provided services and schools. So last month, the Lower Saxony state government voted to ban refugees from moving to Salzgitter.
It was the first German city to impose such a prohibition. Officials then announced they will do the same in two other Lower Saxony cities, Delmenhorst and Wilhelmshaven.
The bans are part of a trend by authorities from the federal level on down to restrict refugees’ movements in a country where more than 1 million asylum seekers have arrived over the past three years.
The German national message of “Refugees Welcome” has been overshadowed by growing complaints about newcomers draining resources and benefits. Refugees are accused by Germans of not integrating quickly into their society, even if German officials are in large part to blame by failing to provide enough help to make integration happen.
A key reason why Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bid to form a new German government fell apart earlier this month centered on disagreement over refugees. Most mainstream parties want to limit more from entering Germany.
But bans like the one in Salzgitter have led to criticism both in Germany and abroad. In an email to NPR, the U.N. refugee agency said the ban violates international law, which guarantees refugees freedom of movement. (The agency noted Salzgitter is granting exceptions, such as in cases of family reunification).
Salzgitter Mayor Frank Klingebiel says there is no choice but to stop more refugees from moving to the city, adding that the ban won’t last more than three years.
“We have 106,000 residents [and] about 5,800 refugees. By comparison, Hanover has 500,000 residents and about 3,500 refugees,” he says, referring to Lower Saxony’s capital. He adds that 91 percent of refugees in Salzgitter don’t have a job and are on welfare. “Our goal is to make integration successful,” he says. “And to keep the peace.”
Klingebiel says there will be less local resentment toward newcomers if officials are given time and money to build more schools and daycare facilities and hire additional staff so residents won’t feel crowded out.
That’s not the case now, says Dincer Dinc, a German of Kurdish descent who is a Salzgitter native and serves as the city’s integration facilitator. He says kindergartens and schools in five of the city’s 31 districts are maxing out and that welfare offices and job centers are filled to capacity.
Even his migrant help center, staffed by volunteers, has experienced a five-fold increase in cases, Dinc says. “The city’s image is changing for residents,” he says. “They encounter more and more people with darker skin and wearing headscarves.”
At a local mall, most of the residents NPR interviewed favor the ban.
Nina Drewes, 42, an eldercare worker, says she agrees with the prohibition not because she hates foreigners, but because she believes they refuse to integrate into German society.
“A whole bunch of them live over my mother’s apartment and they are noisy past acceptable hours,” she says. “And as a woman, I don’t feel comfortable being alone on the streets here anymore.”
Even Syrian refugee Hassan Jandal, 34, who is a day laborer and has lived here for three years, says he supports the ban.
“It’s full here, the kindergarten, all of them foreigners,” he says. “That’s not good.”
He says his rent is also going up, because the newcomers are increasing the demand for housing.
Dinc says he personally embraces the growing diversity in Salzgitter, a city that was the site of one of the largest industrial conglomerates during the Third Reich.
“But I can’t prevent people who were once neutral from wondering if this is the Salzgitter they used to know,” Dinc adds. “As a city, we need a break from more newcomers, because we need to help those who are already here. What good will it do for more and more [refugees] to be drawn here so that the problems we have keep compounding?”
He says other parts of Germany – especially in the east — need to take in a greater share of refugees than they do currently so that it’s more proportional.
Dinc and the mayor also believe the ban will also keep more Salzgitter voters from embracing the xenophobic, nationalist platform of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The right-wing populists received nearly 14 percent of the vote here in the Sept. 24 federal elections – a percentage that is higher than anywhere else in Lower Saxony.
But many other Germans, including Sascha Schiessl of the Refugee Council for Lower Saxony, argue placing restrictions on refugees only strengthens AfD by validating its claims that the refugees, who are mostly Muslim, are harming German society.
He says money, rather than bans, can ease the burden on German cities. He lauded Lower Saxony for sending Salzgitter, Delmenhorst and Wilhelmshaven a total of $23.5 million for this year and next, to help with the integration of refugees.
“The discussion is focused on refugees and the problems refugees create, but that’s not the fact, that’s not the case,” Schiessl says. “The problems were there before the refugees.”
NPR Berlin bureau producer Esme Nicholson contributed to this story.