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Germany Immigration German Elections 2017

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Immigration an issue in Germany's refugee haven

Posters of Angela Merkel's CDU and the hard-left Die Linke in Offenbach Jan van der Made/RFI

The German town of Offenbach has the highest proportion of immigrant inhabitants in Europe and history of welcoming foreigners. But the far-right AfD seems to be making ground in Germany's election this month.

Sixty percent of the inhabitants of Offenbach, a town close to Frankfurt, are of foreign origin.

The city has been praised as a model for integration, it has a longstanding tradition of receiving political and religious refugees and currently brings together a mosaic of 159 nationalities within its 130,000-strong population.

But on the eve of Germany's general election, which also sees a mayoral election in Offenbach, the far right seems to be gaining ground.

“Offenbach is a good place to live. My mum and dad were working here already. I waited five years in Africa before coming here. And now I am studying here,” says Kenny (not his real name) from Mozambique.

His parents fled the civil war in that country in the 1980s and came to Germany to settle down in Offenbach. “I waited five years in Africa before I was able to come as well,” he says. Now he is studying to become a physiotherapist, because he “likes to help people”.

History of hospitality

Offenbach has a long and rich history of receiving refugees, starting in the 17th century, when Johan Philipp, the Count of Isenburg, invited French protestant Huguenots, who were fleeing persecution in France, to settle in Offenbach.

Today the centre of town shows the hyperdiversity brought by the 20th and 21st centuries, encouraged by Offenbach's tradition of hospitality. Shops sell products from all over the world and customers can enjoy an endless variety of national cuisines.

“The most difficult is all the different languages,” says Matthias Schulze-Böing, head of Offenbach’s Department of Employment, Statistics and Integration Policies. The department itself is a model of integration: 80 percent of its 300 staff have a non-German background. It helps refugees to cope when they arrive.

“What is good in Offenbach is that there are many people from other countries,” says Kenny. “They make me feel at home. There are so many places here where you can go and talk. They understand me, they went through the same.”

The philosophy of the city is not to aim for what is generally called a “multicultural society”.

“We are no fans of that when it means that different cultures live besides each other,” says Schulze-Böing. “We are aiming at integration of people with a diverse background into one society.”

The department provides all newcomers with a small monthly income, gives them language training and helps them find jobs.

Far right agitates against immigration

When Chancellor Angela Merkel decided, in 2015, to open the gates to refugees from Syria, many were shocked, but in Offenbach, people reacted positively.

“We are used to it, we were not worried,” says Schulze-Böing, but he observed that in many other cities, there was a sense of panic before Merkel reversed the decision.

The refugee crisis has strengthened the far right and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which was originally created to oppose Germany’s financial help packages for Greece in 2011, has the integration policy in its crosshairs.

The Offenbach chapter of the AfD, which has six out of 71 seats on the city parliament, on 18 September published a statement saying that every immigrant cost the German taxpayer 450,000 euro.

“Sure, immigration comes with costs,” says Schulze-Böing, without directly commenting on the figure cited by the AfD.

“But there are also benefits. And in Offenbach, we see that most of the immigrants are very well integrated. They earn money, they pay taxes.”

At first immigrants do cost money, the Offenbach employment office pays some 480 euros per month and holiday money for each immigrant.

“But it is a long-term investment, and if you invest in your society, you will not get your revenue in the first year. If we do it properly, it is a win-win game, for the receiving society and for the immigrant,” Schulze-Böing says.