How Germany actually deals with 10,000 refugees a day

Refugees making their way through Hungary, bound for Germany. [Freedom House/Flickr]

The emergency structures put in place by Berlin to manage the refugee crisis has the huge task of proving Angela Merkel’s “we can do it” claim correct. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

Crisis? It’s not a word that Emily Haber would use. Crisis denotes catastrophe, and that is not how they want to categorise the influx of refugees into Germany. Haber, the state secretary under German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, is a diplomat and was head of a crisis team at the Foreign Office, a post that involved dealing with exceptionally difficult scenarios.

Whether she wants to call it a crisis or not, Emily Haber has managed such a scenario since the end of August. Initially, it was just her and a handful of people from her ministry and the German regions.

Since the beginning of October, however, there has been a fixed governmental mechanism for dealing with it, in coordination with the regions, the security services and large companies.

>>Read: Refugee crisis does little to dampen Merkel’s 2017 prospects

Several hundred thousand people have crossed into Germany already and pictures of overcrowded reception centres are a daily occurrence in the news media. Haber’s task is to direct the streams of new arrivals in such a way to bring order to the chaos. At her disposal is the entire bureaucratic machine, with the aim of proving correct the Chancellor’s “we can do it” soundbite.

At the beginning of October, the German government transferred “the operational coordination of the extraordinary refugee situation” from Thomas de Maizière’s ministry to Angela Merkel’s chief of staff.

The decision was widely reported as Merkel attempting to depower or oust de Maizière. After weeks of uncertainty over who was responsible for what, Peter Altmaier was given “overall political coordination” of the crisis.

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In practical terms, that means that Altmaier concerns himself with the international and European ramifications of the crisis, as well as ensuring that the various ministries and the 16 regions coordinate and execute their tasks appropriately. Helge Braun, a parliamentary state secretary in the Chancellery, is particularly responsible for coordinating federal-state relations, a job she has held since before the start of the crisis.

Altmaier seconded Jan Hecker from the Federal Administrative Court to head a newly-created department. Hecker was at the interior ministry for many years in its “Immigration law” unit.

However, when it comes to special trains, winter quarters and similar practical instruments, the day-to-day workings are still the responsibility of the interior ministry and Emily Haber, whose crisis management team is central to the entire situation. Initially, 24 hours a day, but more recently from five o’clock in the morning until 10 at night, around 30 members of staff collect information on incoming refugees, organise security measures and transport, and procure facilities in cooperation with the regions.

>>Read: Austria accused of waving through refugees into Bavaria

Wolfgang Lohmann, chief of the regions’ anti-riot police, provides direction for the unit. Hardly anyone else could provide as extensive expertise on these kinds of issues as Lohmann, given that he commands around 15,000 riot police that are on-hand to deal with natural disasters, serious accidents and events that jeopardise the existence of democracy.

Ralf Tiesler, deputy head of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, and his team deal with the 10,000 or so refugees that arrive every day, ensuring they are transported and housed accordingly.

Transporting so many people emphasises how difficult it is to keep the wheels from falling off the entire operation. In the summer, Haber personally contacted Ronald Pofalla in order to organise special night trains to move refugees that had suddenly arrived.

Pofalla, once CDU general secretary and later the chief of the chancellery, sits on the board of Deutsche Bahn and became the government’s guarantor. Due to the urgency of Haber’s request, it was unclear who was liable for payment.

>>Read: Record 218,000 people crossed Mediterranean in October, UN says

In the meantime, Pofalla has organised a taskforce that constantly organises four special refugee trains and their scheduling on the regular train timetable. He has since clarified with Werner Gatzer of the finance ministry that the state will cover the costs.

Transportation, however, is just a small part of the problem. Unaccompanied children and how to house them constantly creates new legal problems. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 13:00, Haber chairs a meeting where the various ministries are briefed.

It is not just the daily chaos in Bavaria that is on the agenda, all other issues are talked about, clarified and instructions given. For officials it is an entirely new experience, hierarchies have been redefined and Haber has access to personnel from other ministries. There is no longer time to request “the opinion of the house”. The crisis takes precedence.

>>Read: German Minister of Justice compared to Goebbels by PEGIDA leader

When the members of Haber’s bi-weekly meeting are exhausted or come up short, she is able to call upon the help of a steering committee made up of the state secretaries from every ministry, which she has met with every Friday since October.

Incidentally, it seems that problems mostly emerge on Wednesdays. Additionally, it is not at the highest level, with Peter Altmaier, where the issues reveal themselves, it is at low-level meetings, at the end of the chain of command, in the municipalities, districts and regions, where the refugee crisis is felt most keenly.

The structures put in place by Berlin will ultimately demonstrate whether or not Angela Merkel’s “we can do it” claim becomes a reality or not.

This article was previously published by EURACTIV Germany.

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