BERLIN: A German small town Thursday sent a bus with 31 Syrian refugees on a road trip to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office in protest against her liberal migrant policy.
The Bavarian district chief behind the journey to Berlin, Peter Dreier, said his rural area was buckling under the strain of a mass influx that brought 1.1 million migrants to Germany last year.
Local citizens had told him “it’s time we set a limit,” he said. “We are trying to help these people integrate. But that won’t work if this year we face another wave of one million, or even more.”
Calling the trip “an act of desperation,” he said he had warned Merkel about his plans in a phone call last October, and had announced it to her office on Wednesday.
Pro-refugee activists condemned the trip as a publicity stunt that exploited the refugees.
The coach, carrying Syrian men with asylum status, left the southern town of Landshut in the morning and arrived at around 1700 GMT outside the chancellery, to be greeted by a large throng of media but no representatives of Merkel’s government.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert in a statement said that housing refugees was the task of state and local governments, who received federal support for this.
The city state of Berlin had promised to help out and put up the 31 for the first night, Seibert said.
Dreier, who had travelled to Berlin separately by car, said he was disappointed by Merkel’s refusal to engage, calling it “an attempt to ignore and negate” the problem.
While media and police stood around the bus, Berlin city officials inside were seen negotiating with the Bavarians, as Syrians looked on with worried faces, glancing nervously at the TV cameras outside.
After two hours, Dreier said he had agreed to personally pay for the refugees’ first night in a Berlin hotel, stressing that the bus had also been laid on by “a private person”, not with taxpayers money.
He said some of the refugees wanted to later take a look at available Berlin accommodation, others had asked to travel on to another city, Hamburg, and whoever wanted to could return to Landshut.
“Let’s get some rest and see tomorrow,” said Dreier, of the small party “Free Voters”, sporting a traditional Bavarian coat for his trip to the capital.
The head of German refugee support group Pro Asyl, Guenther Burkhardt, criticised the refugee road trip, saying “people are being exploited for the sake of media footage”.
“This doesn’t solve the problems… this is a stunt that misuses the plight of refugees to send the message ‘We want to close the borders’,” he said.
Merkel has been praised for opening Germany’s doors to those fleeing war and misery, but has also weathered harsh criticism, especially from Bavaria state, the main gateway for arriving refugees and migrants.
Dreier said “there is no end in sight to the wave of refugees, and our country’s ability to house them in a dignified way is deteriorating rapidly. And I don’t see new apartments being built for the immigrants.”
He said his district had 66 migrant facilities, and around 70 more refugees were coming every week.
Although the 31 Syrians had official asylum status and were now free to look for a home anywhere in Germany, he said he had been keeping them in shelters so they would not end up homeless.