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Germany's small towns feel the cost of Europe's migrant crisis

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Adam Berry | Getty Images

Even as European officials struggle with an unrelenting tide of migrants trying to enter the Continent, tranquil villages like this one in a picture-book valley in northern Bavaria are coping with the legions who have already arrived.

It is here, as much as on the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, that Europe's latest migration crisis is playing out.

With federal authorities expecting a flood of newcomers — an estimated 300,000 will apply for asylum in Germany this year, after 200,000 in 2014 — places like Vorra, population 1,000, are struggling to make room for those who are already here seeking legal status and integration. Housing has been designated, services have been mandated and volunteers have offered clothing and services like rides and free language lessons.

But along with hospitality, Germans are also showing hostility. In Vorra in December, and in the Saxon town of Tröglitz over Easter weekend, arsonists set fire to renovated shelters just weeks before migrants were to move in. No suspects have been detained in either case.

And some community leaders ready to accept the new arrivals have faced ugly threats and protests from people who fear or loathe outsiders.

Similar tensions, and even acts of violence, have emerged elsewhere in Europe — including in Sweden, where fires and vandalism were reported at mosques — amid anti-immigrant marches and heightened rhetoric questioning everything from the worthiness of migrants to the soundness of immigration policies. The issue is feeding into nationalistic sentiments and politics.

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On Thursday, prompted by the deaths of more than 1,500 people who drowned at sea this year while trying to reach the Continent, European leaders will try to figure out a way to stanch the flow of refugees fleeing the disintegration of Syria and Libya, or from farther afield in places like Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Mali. The meeting is expected to focus on the burdens the influx has placed on Italy, Greece, Spain and other parts of southern Europe.

But in a quieter way, northern Europe has also been feeling the strain. On May 8, German leaders will have their own summit meeting in Berlin to address a growing plea from mayors across the country for money and assistance in carrying out the federal mandate for each of Germany's 16 states to take their share of migrants, and figure out how to make room for them.

"Wealthy Germany can afford to help," said Volker Herzog, the mayor of Vorra. The local pastor, the Rev. Björn Schukat, said that instead, there is a tendency by authorities higher up the chain to simply announce that, for example, a dozen refugees are arriving — "and now you get on with it."

Behind the worries is a government policy that calls on the 82 million people of Europe's biggest economy to be generous, particularly in taking in tens of thousands of Syrians. Federal and state authorities apportion the quotas and, increasingly, pay to renovate or rent apartments before sending the people to localities.

There is widespread understanding that Germany's Nazi past and current wealth impose a particular obligation to accommodate those fleeing hardship and war. But the costs are being felt as social workers grapple with overcrowded reception centers and officials scramble to house asylum seekers while applications grind through Germany's complex bureaucracy.

Federal authorities have already loosened employment restrictions to allow new arrivals to work after three months if they can do so without violating varying rules that stipulate states or regions where they can reside.

Accepting asylum seekers "is a common concern for everyone in Germany," Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian sister party in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc, said this month. As governor of Bavaria, with its large rural areas, he emphasized, "we will not leave the communities alone to cope."

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But this region, known as central Franconia, has three social workers for a current allocation of 1,000 migrants. It could use 10, said Pastor Schukat in Vorra.

It was only last December that federal authorities allocated an extra one billion euros to the states and smaller communities to care for refugees this year and next. Just three weeks ago, Berlin was rebuffing calls for more. Now, more money is expected to flow from federal coffers after Ms. Merkel gathers with officials and politicians on May 8.

In 2014, some 627,000 people applied for asylum in a European Union country, including 203,000 in Germany. That was more than anywhere else in the bloc, but proportionally, Germany ranked No. 8, with 2.5 asylum applicants per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 8.4 per thousand in Sweden.

In a recent German poll, more than half the respondents said they thought there was strong hostility to foreigners in the country.

The concern that Germany is inhospitable was also expressed this winter in pro-immigration demonstrations held nationwide to counter swelling anti-immigration marches, above all in Dresden.

The arson attacks in Vorra and Tröglitz sent a signal that alarmed official Germany, ever conscious of the past.

"We should not be surprised that our partners in the world note with great concern when refugee shelters burn in Germany, and that people follow exactly how German society is reacting," the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told Die Welt a week after the attack in Tröglitz.

But just as European statements do little for the Italian Coast Guard members watching migrants capsize and drown in the Mediterranean, pronouncements from Berlin may not help German mayors struggling with the refugee issue.

Weeks before the arson attack, the mayor of Tröglitz, Markus Nierth, quit after far-right marchers opposed to the housing of migrants demonstrated outside his house. At least half a dozen politicians, from big city districts to tiny towns, subsequently told German news media of right-wing harassment and even death threats.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Nierth said he was glad that federal authorities now seemed willing to do more, particularly financially. "It is really hard to make clear to some people that there is no money for a kindergarten, or a swimming pool, but there is money to put up refugees," he said. If the state or federal government absorbed the cost, hostility to refugees would diminish, he argued.

In Vorra, Mr. Herzog, 52, a Social Democrat in a largely conservative state, has been mayor since 1996. He has spent his life in this valley, and is still rattled by the night of Dec. 12, when his panicked deputy called to report that the new refugee shelter was on fire.

Daylight revealed the extent of the damage, estimated at €700,000, and two swastikas daubed in red alongside a slogan, "No to asylum seekers in Vorra."

"I was speechless," Mr. Herzog said. "What was really so bad was that only two weeks earlier there had been an open day," where everyone "seemed really happy that a bit of life would return" to a long-closed guesthouse that was renovated for about 40 refugees.

"From one night to the next morning," he sighed, showing a visitor the damage, "everything was destroyed."

Vorra is a meticulous place: Lace curtains hang the same length to the millimeter, logs are stacked in orderly piles and the church graveyard is strikingly well maintained. The community is small, and any outsider is instantly recognized as such.

But on a recent afternoon, Helga Herbst, 53, and her husband, Peter, 61, were among several residents who said that asylum seekers would be welcome.

"There has always been a good deal of contact with nonresidents, and no fear of such contact," Mr. Herzog said. Despite the swastikas, he was reluctant to attribute the arson attack to right-wingers. "Anyone can paint a symbol on a wall," he said.

Repairs are underway, though it will be fall at earliest before about 30 refugees can be received.

Pastor Schukat noted that adjoining villages had already absorbed a few dozen refugees, just as they had near Tröglitz.

Asked whether the higher authorities were leaving small communities to cope as they can, Pastor Schukat was cautious. "Yes and no," he said. "The great advantage we have is that it really is possible to integrate these people. In a big city, if there are 100 new arrivals, it doesn't really hit home in a big way. Here, you really notice if you have 30 more people to deal with." In the best-case scenario, everyone integrates "in a good, lasting and reasonable way."

Coping with change brought on by once-remote global crises has encouraged inhabitants to overcome fears of strangers, the pastor insisted. "Vorra is an absolutely normal village," he said. "There are 100,000 like it in Germany."