Asylum is out of bounds in a town without pity: Steve Crawshaw in Hagen finds doors closing to foreigners

THE COVER of a book of photographs displaying the attractions of the town of Hagen shows a brown concrete town hall, a 14- floor apartment block, a McDonald's and a bus stop.

A steel town of 200,000 in north-west Germany, Hagen is not one of the country's more picturesque spots, but it has achieved fame of a kind in Germany. It has publicly said no to receiving more foreigners. Enough, the mayor said, was enough.

This is where Germany's uniquely generous asylum law has run into popular resistance. The local mayor, Dietmar Thieser, a Social Democrat and former trade union official, announced that Hagen was no longer prepared to take any more asylum- seekers: 'Whether that is legally acceptable or not, I don't care.'

There are 2,500 foreign asylum-seekers in Hagen today, and the numbers are due to go on rising. Mr Thieser complains that he is expected to find flats for the new arrivals, even when the town itself has a housing shortage. About 3,000 families are waiting to be re-housed.

More than 400,000 asylum- seekers arrived in Germany last year - almost 20 times as many as in the UK. They are apportioned to each of the 16 regions; and the regions apportion the refugees locally. Mr Thieser complains: 'They send us the people, but they don't give us the money.'

The mayor is unrepentant at the anger his comments have caused, and insists that it was necessary to break the taboos. 'Just as we talk about problems among Germans, we must talk about these problems, too.' The far- right Republican Party praised the mayor's 'exemplary behaviour'. But the mayor says that he is unbothered by compliments to a Social Democrat from such an unusual corner. 'Now, the Republicans have no platform on which they can alone discuss problems which objectively exist. Before, the far right could behave as though they were the only representatives of truth.'

At one of the many foreigners' hostels throughout the city, asylum-seekers say they are grateful to the German government for being allowed to be here (although they complain of constant petty racism). Paradoxically, some seem to accept the arguments in favour of stemming the flood of new arrivals: after us, no deluge. William, a student from Cameroon, said: 'I can believe that there are too many people already. It's true, the numbers are very high.'

Downstairs, meanwhile, another delivery of food is being unloaded: crate after crate of household basics: mineral water, juice, milk, sausage, potatoes, onions, washing powder. The food comes courtesy of the local authorities.

In Eckersey, where many foreigners live, groups of Turks gather all day long to chat in the main square. Many have been in Germany for decades. But there is fear here since the killings of Solingen, when five Turkish women and girls were burnt to death in the early hours of 29 May, just half an hour down the autobahn from Hagen. One Turk in his sixties denies feeling frightened, as if to do so would be a sign of weakness. But then, as if as an afterthought, he said: 'I've had nightmares every night, since then. I dreamed that my grandchildren were in the fire.'

So far, at least, Hagen has seen little lethal right-wing violence. Mr Thieser argues that his policy will help to head off the extremists, and prevent them from gaining further support. The Republicans claim, however, that Mr Thieser is merely attempting to steal their clothes. Wolfgang Schulz, leader of the Republican group, argues: 'Two years ago, we proposed just the same thing. He's done it, but too late.'

The Republicans gained 7 per cent of the vote in the last local election. Now, Mr Schulz insists, membership is increasing steadily, and they are unimpressed by Mr Thieser's bid for popular support.

The Republicans portray themselves as the voice of the little man, whom nobody listens to. Mr Schulz argues that the established parties have no contact with reality. 'The foreigners are all put into the same districts, where the little people live. None of them goes where the top people from the old parties live.'

In some respects, the mayor echoes that view. 'The people in Bonn go on television talk-shows and talk about 'disillusionment with politics'. But they don't really know what's going on.' The mayor insists that the closing of its doors is based on practical problems, not on racism. If the town continued to take more refugees, he says, it would have to turn over sports halls to temporary accommodation - as has happened before. And that, he says, Hageners would refuse to accept. Already anonymous leaflets have started appearing, saying: 'Citizens] We must organise ourselves]'

Hagen used to be a booming steel town. But those days are long gone. Thousands of jobs have been lost. At the Krupp steel works, yet more jobs are due to go in the next few months. Outside the main works, a plaintive notice declares: 'Hagen must remain a producer of steel]' Already, the unemployment rate is 10 per cent (up from 8 per cent last year), and seems set to rise further.

Hagen's policy was described by one of the mayor's Social Democratic colleagues as 'living-room racism', and there have been calls for Mr Thieser's resignation. But there has been rare political unity on the council: most Social Democrats voted in favour, as did the other mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats - and, of course, the Republicans.

The only ones who have consistently opposed the policy have been the Greens. Matthias Peck of the Greens suggests that Mr Thieser's defiance of the law sets a disastrous example. 'This gives carte blanche for Solingen and Molln (where three people were burnt to death last year). Those people can say, 'We're just going one step further.' '

There is a paradox at the heart of the question of xenophobic violence. Most bitterness is reserved for the asylum-seekers, or the Scheinasylanten, the 'fake asylum-seekers', who continue to stream into Germany. Many Germans believe that the foreigners arriving merely want a share of Germany's affluence. 'We can take the ones who are fleeing the war in Yugoslavia, of course - but not the others,' was one typical comment in Hagen.

Yet the most lethal attacks have been against Turks, many of whom have been in Germany for two or three decades, and who have contributed enormously to its wealth.

Even now, there is often little solidarity between Turks, who form about 5 per cent of the population of Hagen, and the the new foreigners, the asylum-seekers. One Turk argued: 'Asylum-seekers are all liars.' His friends laughed in agreement. Another man added: 'They work cheaper than us. We get paid 18 marks ( pounds 7) an hour. And they offer to do the same job for five.'

Hagen, like other towns across Germany, provides food and shelter not only for those fleeing the Yugoslav wars, but also for Romanians, Bulgarians and others who seek to escape their present circumstances. All have the right to stay while their cases are considered. It is a government policy developed during the Cold War, when the numbers were manageable, because the borders were almost closed. Now that they are open, however, the numbers have become a flood.

Few seriously doubt that the pressures are enormous, especially when Germany is trying to cope with its own recession, and with the traumatic effects of the re- marriage of west and east, after 40 years apart. The asylum rules were recently tightened somewhat, despite the qualms of the SPD (which eventually voted in favour of the change); but most Germans believe that the asylum- seekers will continue to arrive.

A bank employee, walking with his wife in Hagen's pedestrianised shopping centre, said: 'We've nothing against foreigners. When one says the ship is full, then they say that we are Nazis. But why don't they go to England, instead? That's what I want to know.' In most cases, even disagreement with the council's initiative is voiced only cautiously. One man argued: 'We must be careful not to stir up hostility to foreigners. After all, the lack of apartments is not just here, it's everywhere.'

Mr Thieser believes that he has usefully focused attention on the problems facing Hagen and other towns. 'We wanted to make clear that the situation is dramatic - not just with us, but everywhere. This has nothing to with asylum, yes-or-no, but to do with the communities, and what they can do. Now, we have at least given ourselves a breathing space.'

Mr Peck argues differently. He believes that the asylum-seekers will continue to arrive, and that Mr Thieser's gesture was, in that sense, 'just hot air' (a compromise has already been struck between council and regional government). But, Mr Peck says, the Hagen rhetoric can have dangerous consequences, by encouraging resentment of those who continue to arrive. 'It would be wrong to think that we have seen the last of the violence.'

BONN (Reuter) - Two refugees were injured when arsonists attacked a hostel in the northern town of Raisdorf, police said yesterday.

They said the two men suffered mild smoke inhalation while fleeing the burning house, where about 20 refugees stayed near the Baltic port of Kiel on Friday night.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own