GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Europe is experiencing the largest migration of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II, leaving many here with questions and concerns: As a Soldier or family member, will I be affected? Why is this happening and how can I help?
Col. Mark Colbrook, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria, hosted a community town hall Oct. 20 to discuss the housing of refugees in nearby cities.
“We’re here to talk about the current refugee situation in Germany and what the potential impact is on U.S. forces,” Colbrook said in opening remarks. “I know there are some concerns in the community and I want to address those.”
Colbrook opened the town hall describing the migration of refugees, who they are, where they are coming from and where they are heading.
More than 470,000 migrants have arrived in Europe this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But those numbers can be confusing, or even debated, based on certain definitions, explained Colbrook.
“There are differences between people coming out of countries enduring civil wars and violence as opposed to those who are not,” Colbrook said.
The European Union defines asylum seekers—also referred to as a refugees—as those who have left their home country of citizenship and are seeking safety in a host nation due to the belief that their home country is unable to protect them due to fear of persecution on grounds of race, nationality, or membership of social group or political opinion. Migrants out of the turmoil in Syria, for example, fit this category.
While there is a large number of migrants moving into Europe, not all are asylum-seekers. There are certain entry rules for migrants wishing to move to Germany. But there are other privileges and rights granted asylum-seekers. Those requesting asylum are screened, and, if granted asylum status, receive a temporary residence permit and are given the same status as Germans within the social insurance system. If not granted, asylum-seekers can be deported, according to German policy.
According to numbers released by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, while Bavaria takes in about 15 percent of asylum-seekers, the largest number in Germany are westbound to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
“But that’s a little deceiving,” said Colbrook, “because the other thing Bavaria has is the largest migration route of refugees. When you think about how you get to Germany, the vast majority must come through Bavaria.”
The largest number of those coming into Europe are from war-town Syria, followed by Kosovo, Afghanistan and Albania. Germany tops the list of countries, however, for taking in the largest number of asylum applications, according to numbers released by the Pew Research Center.
How does this impact USAG Bavaria?
Colbrook and his team pulled numbers from local officials and the German ministry of migration to analyze the refugee situation within the USAG Bavaria housing footprint.
“We looked at areas where USAG Bavaria has housing, so that’s Grafenwoehr, Vilseck, Hohenfels and Garmisch,” Colbrook said, adding that “we were are able to determine that there are about 1,200 refugees that are currently living—maybe temporarily, maybe permanently based on their asylum process—in the same towns that we have housing areas.”
Colbrook noted that the distribution is uneven. In Garmisch, for example, there is a higher density of asylum-seekers than in smaller cities around Grafenwoehr, Vilseck or Hohenfels.
The total percentage of the population within the USAG Bavaria housing footprint who are refugees is about 0.3 percent, Colbrook said, and there have been no confirmed refugee-on-American crimes in the USAG Bavaria footprint.
Is the refugee situation affecting housing for DOD personnel?
One question posed was whether USAG Bavaria is turning over government-leased housing to the German government to support the refugee crisis.
In Germany, DOD personnel and their families are eligible to live in one of three locations: On-post housing, government-leased housing or private rental housing.
No one is being asked to leave from either on-post housing or government-leased housing, Colbrook said. In fact, contractual obligations and support agreements are in place with all government-leased quarters. The agreements last three, five or even 10 years. These agreements are conducted between host nation officials and U.S. Army officials.
But private-leased housing poses other issues.
“Under German rental contract law, a rental contract is separable by either party (lender or renter) with 90-days’ notice. We have had a very limited number of U.S. Soldiers who live in private rental quarters that had been served notices to terminate the lease to convert those facilities to support refugees.”
This, Colbrook explained, is up to the landlord and the German government to determine how to take in asylum-seekers. Military personnel forced to move not on their own free will would be authorized to have a paid move, he said.
Colbrook also voiced potential concerns about the refugee situation resulting in a housing crunch. But according to housing officials, the refugee factor has not yet played a major role in the off-post private rental market. While it is a very competitive market for Service members and DOD personnel, the movement of refugees into Europe has not prevented the USAG Bavaria housing office from finding homes for DOD personnel.
Will USAG Bavaria host refugees?
U.S. military installations in Europe do not take in refugees.
“If that were to take place,” Colbrook said, “that would be a state-to-state interaction between the German government and the U.S. government on whether we would assist in re-locating refugees. Right now, this is a German government internal issue.”
How do I know where I can safely travel?
Colbrook directed the community to use the U.S. State Department website prior to traveling and contact the garrison’s Force Protection office if people have questions or concerns.
Visit the State Department site at www.state.gov/travel for details on travel alerts and warnings, country specific information and traveler’s checklists. State Department travel alerts and warnings, said Colbrook, apply to all DOD personnel including Service members, civilians and family members.
The State Department strongly recommends that U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Germany enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates and makes it easier for the State Department to contact you in an emergency.
“I would be very concerned right now about traffic when traveling through some of the areas like across the Austrian border because of the recently implemented border patrols,” Colbrook said.
The State Department has warned of disruptions, and BBC reported traffic jams at the borders nearly 12 miles long. And in the passport-free Schengen Area of 26 European countries, members can temporarily reinstate border controls with other member states, reported The Local.
U.S. Army Europe policy dictates that “Members of the U.S. forces community in Europe who are non-EU citizens need a valid passport when traveling to European countries not specified on their official DoD assignment orders.”
What can I do to protect myself?
If you see something out of the ordinary, report it.
Colbrook said: “We don’t have enough people to have eyes everywhere, so we do really rely on the people that live in our local community to report something out of the ordinary.”
The two easiest ways to report suspicious activity:
I want to donate items to the refugees. How?
The U.S. Army is not donating any items, but “we want to support those private organizations and people that do,” Colbrook said. “We want to ensure procedures are in place so that you do so safely and legally, and that those items get to German organizations who see to it that they land in the hands of refugees in need.”