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When Angela Merkel made her first visit to a refugee shelter since she became chancellor a decade ago, far right demonstrators booed and screamed Volksverräter, traitor to the people.
When she left the asylum seeker centre in Heidenau on Wednesday, she condemned the protesters.
“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in the spot where rightwing extremists battled police last weekend. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”
Ms Merkel’s visit to the town near Dresden highlighted the twin challenges facing her country — the arrival in record numbers of asylum seekers and the violent backlash this has prompted from the far right.
Famed for her caution, the chancellor has been forthright when it comes to defending refugees, race and the changing face of Germany. Her interventions have sometimes backfired. Last month, she was left speechless when a Palestinian teenager facing deportation burst into tears on television. She was criticised on social media for being slow to respond to the violence in Heidenau. But overall, she has steered the debate in a liberal direction, analysts say, challenging the far right while moving slowly enough to avoid startling her own conservative base.
Since the start of the year, Ms Merkel has condemned the anti-Islamisation movement Pegida and defended Islam as a religion that “belongs to Germany”. In June, speaking at the 70th anniversary celebrations of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, she told fellow party members: “We are the second most popular country of immigration in the OECD. The Union isn’t so keen to talk about that, but we will learn to.”
Her cautious embrace of migration fits with her political strategy of occupying the centre ground, analysts say. Earlier this year, the CDU floated the idea of an immigration law, creating a clear legal avenue for non-EU migration. Such a move would bolster the prospects of a future coalition between Ms Merkel’s conservatives and the pro-migration Greens. It would also help address the decline in Germany’s working-age population, forecast to decline sharply in coming decades.
Steffen Angenendt, a migration expert at the SWP think-tank, said Ms Merkel’s approach to refugees is characteristic of her crisis management style. “She bides her time, and tries to avoid making a mistake, until the precise moment when she sees that she can deal with it,” he said. “In the asylum debate, that moment has been reached.”
Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, more than the whole of the EU combined in 2014. New reception centres have been opening up across the country, and are filling rapidly as German authorities struggle to cope with the influx. The centre in Heidenau, which opened on Friday, is now home to 575 refugees, more than half of them from Syria.
While many Germans have responded with displays of solidarity — donating clothes to refugees and even organising ice cream deliveries to asylum seekers in hot weather — there have also been nearly 200 attacks on asylum seeker shelters in the first half of this year, ranging from the daubing of Nazi symbols to the burning of buildings.
Kerstin Krejak, 59, one of the protesters outside the centre in Heidenau, said: “There are too many people coming to Germany. Germany looks prosperous from the outside, but we are struggling. Why is money going to refugees, when we need it ourselves?” Ms Krejak, a pet hairdresser, added that she was not a Nazi, and condemned the previous weekend’s riots where demonstrators — some shouting “Heil Hitler” — battled police.
Tensions are clearly high. As Ms Merkel arrived and stepped out of her black Audi limousine the crowd shouted: “There is money for everything, but not for your own people.”
Such a hostile public reception is rare for the German chancellor, a politician whose approval rating was 67 per cent according to an Infratest Dimap poll in late July. But her views appear to be — with the exception of the minority of far-right protesters — in tune with those of the German public.
A poll published last week showed 60 per cent of the German public thought the country “could cope with” the high levels of refugees. The poll conducted for broadcaster ZDF after the latest forecast for asylum seeker numbers was published showed 86 per cent regarded Germany as a “country of immigration”. In Ms Merkel’s favour is the fact that Bild, the most popular daily newspaper in Germany, offers more balanced coverage of refugees than tabloids in other European countries.
Still, scepticism remains. Tobias Schultheiss, 33, a resident who had come to watch the chancellor’s arrival in Heidenau on Wednesday, said: “She should have come sooner. I don’t think that the chancellor can solve this easily but it is good that she is here to show she is interested.”