German government tells village of 102 it will get 750 refugees
Sumte has become a showcase of the extreme pressures bearing down on Germany as it scrambles to find shelter for what, by the end of the year, could be more than 1 million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
SUMTE, Germany — Sumte, a bucolic, one-street settlement of handsome redbrick farmhouses, may have many more cows than people, but this week it will be one of the fastest-growing places in Europe. Not that anyone in Sumte is excited about it.
In early October, the district government informed Sumte Mayor Christian Fabel by email that his village of 102 people just over the border in what was once Communist East Germany would take in 1,000 asylum seekers.
His wife, Fabel said, assured him it must be a hoax. “It certainly can’t be true” that such a small, isolated place would be asked to accommodate nearly 10 times as many migrants as it had residents, she told him. “She thought it was a joke,” he said.
It was not. Sumte has become a showcase of the extreme pressures bearing down on Germany as it scrambles to find shelter for what, by the end of the year, could be more than 1 million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In a small concession to the villagers, Alexander Gotz, a regional official from Lower Saxony, told them the initial number of refugees, scheduled to start arriving Monday and to be housed in empty office buildings, would be kept to 500, and limited to 750 in all.
Nevertheless, the influx is testing the limits of tolerance and hospitality in Sumte and across Germany. It is also straining German politics, creating deep divisions in the conservative camp of Chancellor Angela Merkel and energizing extremist groups that feel their time has come.
One of the few people who seem enthusiastic about the plan for Sumte is Holger Niemann, 32, an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the lone neo-Nazi on the elected district council. He rejoices at the opportunities the migrant crisis has offered.
“It is bad for the people, but politically it is good for me,” Niemann said of the plan, which would leave the German villagers outnumbered by migrants by more than 7 to 1.
Germans face “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risk becoming “a gray mishmash,” Niemann added, predicting that anxiety over Merkel’s open-armed welcome to refugees would help demolish a postwar political consensus in Germany built on moderation and compromise.
Unlike those in other European countries, far-right parties in Germany have had little success in national elections and have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Germans.
Reinhold Schlemmer, a former Communist who served as the mayor here before and immediately after the collapse of East Germany, said people like Niemann would “have been put in prison right away” during the communist era.
“Now they can stand up and preach,” he said. “People say this is democracy, but I don’t think it is democracy to let Nazis say what they want.”
Schlemmer is among those concerned that extremists are exploiting widespread concerns, even in the political mainstream, over absorbing vast numbers of refugees, as the influx tests Germany’s capacity to cope.
Sumte has no shops, no police station, no school. The initial number of arrivals was, in fact, reduced to avoid straining the local sewage system and to give time for new pumps to be installed.
“We have zero infrastructure here for so many people,” said Fabel, the mayor.
As the federal government scrambles to find shelter for the refugees before winter, it is assigning quotas to each of Germany’s 16 Lander, or states, based on factors such as economic
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