Postcard from... Schwäbisch Gmünd


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The Independent Online


It seemed like a good idea at the time. The railway station in the idyllic south German town of Schwäbisch Gmünd is undergoing a series of lengthy repairs and passengers are obliged to cross the tracks via a temporary bridge with tall staircases at each end.

Mayor Richard Arnold decided to take action: the hundreds of refugee asylum seekers in the town were asked to act as porters and help travellers with their suitcases.

The pay was going to be worse than miserly – a pitiful ¤1.50 (£1.30) an hour. It was all the refugees are allowed to earn under Germany’s strict  asylum laws.

But dozens leapt at the chance all the same. Within days refugees from Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan were to be seen lugging passengers’ luggage across the railway bridge.

The media descended on the town to record the event. When it started getting blisteringly hot, Mayor Arnold was out distributing straw hats to his refugee workers. But to many he seemed like a colonial governor handing out headgear to his coolies. Schwäbisch Gmünd was flooded with furious emails claiming the town was racist.

Deutsche Bahn, the German rail network which owns the station, got wind of it and immediately put a stop to the refugee porters. “The thing with the straw hats – that really wasn’t necessary,” admitted Mayor Arnold.

He may be right. But his project has succeeded in reopening a debate about pay rates for Germany’s growing refugee population. Detractors say upping their pay will attract more refugees to the country. Others say it’s high time they stopped being insulted.