On Saturday morning in the biting cold, a middle-aged man in a stout winter coat handed out free tulips in a west German suburb to mark International Women’s Day.
By – Sue Reid
He cut an unusual figure in the market square of Marxloh, a rundown multi-cultural district where the German tongue is a rarity, on the edge of the once-thriving steel city of Duisburg.
Half the 20,000 residents in this suburb have foreign roots, many arriving thanks to a border-free EU and German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer of welcome to the world’s refugees.
The outcome of Europe’s biggest migration crisis since the Second World war has been disastrous for Marxloh.
Many of the newcomers are jobless and so rely on state benefits, and hang around with nothing worthwhile to do.
A leaked police report says the streets are controlled by drug dealers and robbers who ‘view crime as their leisure activity’.
As for the Germans who remain here, some are frightened to go out after dark because of ‘conflicts between foreigners’, claiming that tram journeys through the area in the evenings are ‘nightmarish’.
‘We have many problems here and they do not get better,’ explains the tulip man in good English as he hands me an orange bloom from his basket.
‘This is a dangerous place that Mrs Merkel has tried hard to forget.’
That was until last week, when she conceded for the first time that areas like Marxloh had become lawless no-go areas where locals, and even police, fear to tread.
Facing the end of her career if she failed to stitch together a loveless ‘grand coalition’ of political opposites, the ‘no-go’ admission was a dramatic climbdown for the German leader, who has welcomed more than a million new faces to her country in three years, while irritating an increasingly sceptical German public with the mantra ‘We can do it’.
Yesterday she survived only after an unlikely 11th hour pact was agreed between her own conservative-leaning Christian Democratic Union and the Left-wing staunchly pro-immigration Social Democratic Party.
Yet the road ahead will be rocky because the two parties have only a small joint majority in parliament. Both are under pressure from the Right-wing, fiercely anti-migrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
In elections last year, reflecting growing German dissatisfaction with mass immigration, it raced from the traps to become the country’s third largest political force.
In troubled Marxloh, a third of those entitled to vote backed the AfD. ‘We felt disillusioned,’ says a young German man with a ring in his ear, who was drinking on Saturday afternoon at the Crazy Monkey, one of the few pubs left in the Duisburg area thanks to the large teetotal Muslim population.
Smoking a cigarette outside before returning to his game of darts, he said: ‘It’s no surprise that people here are turning against Mrs Merkel and her policy of allowing so many foreigners in.’
In Marxloh market square itself, the main open-air restaurant, the Spar, is run by a Turkish 28-year-old who spent ten years in London’s Wood Green.
He came to Germany ‘because of family difficulties’ six months ago, refuses to give me his name, but announces that the district has ‘massive problems’.
‘There are many people from different places in the world who want control here,’ he said. ‘We don’t see the police often and they seem to stay away from the streets.’
Whatever the accuracy of this, Marxloh does not make you feel safe. The only policemen I encountered over seven hours were two outside their office in the market square.
They were standing near a heavily filled ashtray and refused to talk to me even through a German interpreter.
The streets come alive after dark when locals leave the market square, dominated by a mega-market called Istanbul and close to a street of gaudy wedding dress shops that are hugely popular with newly arrived migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
Loud Arabic music floats out into the air from shoddy apartment blocks, there are wild gatherings of Roma with cans of lager, and flash cars with young men at the wheel suddenly zoom into sight and roar away again.
Marxloh is one of 40 problem areas cited in the German media as struggling to cope with large migrant concentrations, urban decay, high unemployment and chronic welfare dependency, which have become, they claim, ‘incubators for anarchy’ as well as drug-dealing and crime.
In an article called ‘Ghetto Report Germany’ the respected newspaper Bild – which described those 40 areas – labelled them as parallel societies, no-go areas and ‘burgeoning ghettos’.
Official police reports given to another respected newspaper, Der Spiegel, said spiralling levels of violence in Marxloh (and other places like it) show officers are losing control, and public order ‘cannot be guaranteed over the long term’.
‘There are districts where immigrant gangs are taking over streets for themselves,’ said the resulting account in Der Spiegel.
‘Native residents and business people are being intimidated and silenced. Policemen, and especially policewomen, are particular victims of a high level of aggression and disrespect.’
It doesn’t sound like the Germany of old. Marxloh, a 20-minute tram ride away from central Duisburg in western Germany, used to be a place for German families to visit on a Saturday afternoon for shopping, a picnic in the park, or a coffee and beer at the pavement cafes.
Not many outsiders visit here now, or dare to. The majority of women wear hijabs in respect of their Muslim religion and crowds of men in leather jackets gather on street corners to smoke while talking in foreign languages and staring pointedly at strangers.
Marxloh has long been an ethnic melting pot. The first foreigners to settle here were Turkish guest workers, invited to Germany in the Fifties and Sixties to do menial labour in the steelworks, only one of which remains.
Many are now German citizens. Soon to follow were Lebanese given sanctuary when they were displaced during a civil war that started in the Seventies.
When the EU’s borders were opened to East Europeans more than a decade ago, the Romanians and Bulgarians arrived, too. Then came Mrs Merkel’s decisions to invite Syrian refugees, which led to many others – often pretending to be genuine refugees – from Kurdish areas of the Middle East, the Balkan States and Africa.
According to the locals, Marxloh’s streets serve as boundaries between ethnic gangs guarding their drug-dealing turf. One is called ‘Kurdish road’, another ‘Romanian Road’.
No wonder Mrs Merkel has had to concede there are no-go areas in her country.
In her surprise admission last week, she said domestic security was the state’s obligation and people had a right to it whenever they meet and move in a public space. ‘There are such places, and you have to call them by name and you have to do something about it,’ she said.
Wise words, but too late? She was speaking a few weeks after a government-ordered study showed a drastic increase in violent crime committed by male migrants in Germany aged between 14 and 30.
Written by a group of criminologists, it said the influx of asylum seekers had led to the depressing spike.
A report prepared for the regional parliament on the breakdown of law and order in the Duisburg area has claimed Lebanese gangs, in particular, refuse to recognise police authority.
Their members are young men between 15 and 25, and that ‘nearly 100 per cent’ of them – according to the report – are wanted for suspected crimes including physical assault, theft or robbery.
In Marxloh last Easter, a 15-year-old Bulgarian boy was killed with an axe late at night in a feud between his father and fellow Bulgarians. The child was dragged home by his mother before he died, leaving a trail of blood on the pavement. It isn’t what should be happening.
Two years ago Arnold Plickert, a regional chief of Germany’s biggest police union, acknowledged that Marxloh, and other no-go areas, had been ignored for too long.
He said a zero-tolerance policy was being put in place. ‘If someone fails to use their car indicator, listens to loud music or throws a cigarette butt on the ground, the police will ensure the law is enforced,’ he said.
‘You have to say whoever comes to Germany needs to follow our rules.
‘And if they don’t, then you draw a line and deport them.’
It was a powerful statement, but there seemed little evidence of his sentiments in Marxloh this weekend.
I watched Roma girls of primary school age begging in the streets, and boys of 13 or 14 shouting to each other in Arabic as they ran across busy roads, threateningly demanding money by banging on the windows of cars slowed down by the traffic.
Whatever the overburdened police – and now Mrs Merkel – have to say, little in this sad part of Germany seems to be changing for the better.
‘Mutti’ (or Mother) as the Germans call her, may have won herself another term as chancellor, but there seems little she can do to clear up a mess which many here believe to be, in large part, of her own making.
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Read more: From 2016/10/21