A German Town In Decline Sees Refugees As Path To Revival

A German Town In Decline Sees Refugees As Path To Revival

12:06pm Sep 23, 2015
Wilfried Block, the mayor of Friedland, in northeastern Germany, says his shrinking town needs migrants to revitalize the economy. Much of Europe faces a demographic challenge, with retirees on the rise and young workers in decline. Analysts say migrants
Wilfried Block, the mayor of Friedland, in northeastern Germany, says his shrinking town needs migrants to revitalize the economy. Much of Europe faces a demographic challenge, with retirees on the rise and young workers in decline. Analysts say migrants
Esme Nicholson for NPR

Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Germany, not far from the Baltic coast, Friedland is a peaceful, rural town of about 5,000 people.

It wasn't always so quiet here. When it was part of communist East Germany, Friedland was an industrial hub, where massive processing plants turned beets into sugar and potatoes into powdered starch.

Like many others in the town, Wilfried Block, 58, used to work at the local potato starch factory. But when East and West Germany became one country again in 1990, things changed.

"The factories were shut down after reunification, and it hit us hard," Block says. "We lost 2,000 jobs in Friedland alone."

Block was lucky and found another job: He's been the mayor here since 1992. He says the town has invested heavily in regenerating itself.

"Our once gray, industrial town is now green and pleasant. But we've failed to keep people from leaving," he says.

Since reunification, more than 3,000 people, most of them young, have left Friedland in pursuit of job prospects in the West. They've left behind a diminished and aging population.

Block hopes to reverse the trend and sees a golden opportunity in the many migrants currently arriving in Germany.

This demographic shift is also typical in western Germany, but for different reasons. There are plenty of jobs and the economy is buoyant, but with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Germany is short of workers — particularly in the skilled sectors.

Most all of Europe faces similar demographic challenges, but some analysts say that if properly handled, the current migrant crisis could be turned into the basis for future economic growth in Europe.

A Potential Economic Opportunity

The upfront costs of integrating migrants will be high, the analysts acknowledge, but they argue that an influx of younger workers is essential for European countries to prosper. And given the low birthrates across the continent, those young workers will have to come from abroad.

As Friedland's job market has started to improve, there are open positions to fill. Block is eager to fill the gap left by the town's own economic emigrants with migrants from elsewhere.

"First of all, we want to do our part and help," Block says. "But we also want to encourage asylum seekers to put down roots and build a life in Friedland and help rebuild the town's economy."

While larger towns are having to cobble together makeshift shelters and tent cities, Block says Friedland has plenty of space.

"Here, there's no need to turn sports halls and schools into emergency accommodation," he says. "We've got empty apartments to offer."

But the mayor doesn't get to decide how many asylum seekers come to his town: Numbers are determined by the government, based on population size and tax revenue. This means that Friedland won't be able to fill all of its empty apartments.

So Far, Small Numbers

Nevertheless, 170 migrants are already here. At the weekly event where many recently arrived asylum seekers come to get donated clothes for their fast-growing children, Elizabeth Amoah sifts through a pile of woolen sweaters.

The 35-year-old mother of three is from Ghana. She says she came to Germany for economic reasons and is waiting to hear about her visa status. Her children attend the local school, and she wants to settle in Friedland for their sake.

"I want my children to have a bright future," Amoah says. "My first child says she wants to be a doctor and the second one a lawyer. My prayers are that their dream should come true."

Kerstin Kreller heads up the not-for-profit initiative that runs the clothes bank. She welcomes anyone, regardless of whether they are here as refugees or as economic migrants.

"Quite honestly, it's simply the best thing that could happen to us. It's a miracle!" Kreller enthuses. "People are arriving here instead of leaving. Not only can we offer these young, willing and educated people shelter, but also opportunities that will benefit everyone and rejuvenate the local economy. It's a gift."

Kreller says the newcomers need more than just handouts.

"We want to be able to help them in their search for a job, help them make sense of German bureaucracy and offer language courses," she says.

Learning the language is not the only obstacle to integration: Friedland is running a deficit, and two representatives from the far-right NPD party sit on the town council.

But the mayor insists the far-right supporters are a minority. And he says nothing will deter him from reviving his hometown and helping anyone who comes here seeking a better life.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's pay a visit now to a European town that wants to make use of asylum seekers, especially those that could be called economic migrants. The mayor of Friedland in Germany is hoping the new arrivals can help replace the young and educated natives who've been leaving that small town. Esme Nicholson reports.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Germany not far from the Baltic coast, Friedland is a peaceful, rural town of about 5,000 people. It wasn't always so quiet here. In former communist times, Friedland was an industrial hub. Like many others here, 58-year-old Wilfried Block used to work at the local potato starch factory. But when Germany became one country again in 1990, things changed.

WILFRIED BLOCK: (Through interpreter) The factories were shut down after reunification, and it hit us hard. We lost 2,000 jobs in Friedland alone.

NICHOLSON: Block was lucky and found a job. He's been the mayor here since 1992.

BLOCK: (Through interpreter) We've invested a lot in regeneration. Our once gray, industrial town is now green and pleasant. But we've failed to keep people from leaving.

NICHOLSON: Since reunification, over 3,000 people, most of them young, have upped and left the town in pursuit of job prospects in the West. But now the job market here is improving, and there are open positions. Mayor Block is eager to fill the gap left by the town's own economic migrants with migrants from elsewhere.

BLOCK: (Through interpreter) First of all, we want to do our part and help. But we also want to encourage asylum seekers to put down roots and build a life in Friedland and help rebuild the town's economy.

NICHOLSON: And while larger towns are having to cobble together makeshift shelters and tent cities, Block says he has plenty of space.

BLOCK: (Through interpreter) Here, there's no need to turn sports halls and schools into emergency accommodation. We've got empty apartments to offer.

NICHOLSON: But the mayor doesn't get to decide on how many asylum seekers come to Friedland. Numbers are determined by the government, based on population size and tax revenue. That means Friedland won't be able to fill all its empty apartments, but 170 migrants are already here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: This is the weekly clothes bank, where many of the town's recently-arrived asylum seekers come to kit out their fast-growing children. Elizabeth Amoah sifts through a pile of woolen sweaters. The 35-year-old mother of three is from Ghana.

ELIZABETH AMOAH: I want my children to be bright future, yeah, because my first child say he want to be a doctor, and the second one say he want to be a lawyer. Then, my prayer that their dream should come true.

NICHOLSON: She says she came to Germany for economic reasons and is waiting to hear about her visa status. Her children go to the local school, and she wants to settle in Friedland. The woman who runs the clothes bank, Kerstin Kreller, welcomes anyone, whether a refugee or economic migrant.

KERSTIN KRELLER: (Through interpreter) Quite honestly, it's simply the best thing that could've happened to us. It's a miracle. People are arriving here instead of leaving. Not only can we offer these young, willing and educated people shelter but also opportunities that will benefit everyone and rejuvenate the local economy. It's a gift.

NICHOLSON: Kreller says the newcomers need more than just handouts.

KRELLER: (Through interpreter) We want to be able to help them in their search for a job, offer language courses and help them cope with German bureaucracy.

NICHOLSON: There are obstacles to integration. Friedland is running a deficit, and two representatives from the neo-Nazi NPD party sit on the town council. But the mayor says the far-right are a minority, and nothing will deter him from rescuing his hometown and helping anyone who comes here seeking a better life. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Friedland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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