How a food charity has sparked a furious debate about refugees, poverty and racism

Last week a food charity in Essen took the controversial decision to stop taking any new foreign clients. The move, said to be aimed at helping German Omas, has unleashed a heated debate about racism and poverty.

How a food charity has sparked a furious debate about refugees, poverty and racism
Photo: DPA

Was it racist of a food bank in the western town of Essen to only take new clients with German ID papers in order to “restore balance” between Germans and foreigners? Or has a heartless government led to the poor fighting over scraps? These are some of the accusations that have been thrown around in a vicious blame game over the past few days.

The Essener Tafel, a charity which collects food past its sell by date and distributes it to the poor, took the decision back in December to only accept new clients with German citizenship.

Jörg Sartor, the head of the charity claimed that many elderly Germans and single mothers were scared off by an increasingly aggressive atmosphere as the number of foreigners using the charity had risen to three-quarters of the total.

Sartor stirred further controversy by saying that some migrant groups shared a “give-me gene” and did not understand Germany's “queueing culture”.

His statements caused outrage among many left-wing politicians, who swiftly denounced the decision as racist.

Caren Lay, an MP for Die Linke, said “the exclusion of migrants from the Essener Tafel is unacceptable and racist. We can’t accept that the poorest people are played off against one another. There is enough food for everyone there.”

The charity also quickly felt the brunt of left-wing activist anger. Over the weekend vehicles and buildings belonging to the Tafel were sprayed with slogans including “Nazis” and “FCK NZI”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also weighed into the debate on Monday, condemning the food bank's decision.

“One shouldn’t make such distinctions, that’s not good,” she told broadcaster RTL.

But Sartor has had support, too – albeit occasionally from political circles he claims to have nothing to do with. 

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) said that the charity's decision was forced upon it by Merkel's “asylum chaos”, referring to the 1.2 million asylum seekers who have come to Germany since 2015.

“Who could have reckoned with an extra 75 percent of asylum scroungers at the charity who use their elbows against the weak?” the AfD wrote in a statement on Facebook.

“The food banks have become the centre of a civil war between Germans, migrants and invaders, who are miserably fighting for resources, with the weakest of the weak cut out,” the AfD statement continued.

But support for the Tafel also came from the left, with Die Linke leader Sahra Wagenknecht, decrying criticism of the charity as “sanctimonious.”

The Die Linke leader said that politicians should spend less time criticizing the food charity and more time considering their own failures, namely that the state welfare system has been hollowed out, leaving ever more people in a vulnerable situation.

“The real scandal is that there are conflicts over the division of old food in a country as rich as Germany,” Wagenknecht said. “It isn’t right that the poorest people bear the costs of migration. Not the Essener Tafel, but irresponsible government policies have poisoned the political climate.”

Sartor, for his part, has rejected the pressure put on his charity by both the right and left of the political spectrum.

“All these politicians are piling in and they don’t know what they are talking about,” he told Bild, rejecting the AfD’s assertion that immigrants had used physical force.

“I’m not going to let myself be used – either by the left-wing or the right,” he said.


German business leaders back proposed citizenship reforms

The latest proposals for reforming German citizenship law have triggered a controversial debate in Germany. But business experts are in support of the changes.

German business leaders back proposed citizenship reforms

Last Friday, new details emerged of the German coalition government’s plans to make German citizenship easier to come by.

Amongst other reforms, the proposed changes will make it possible to become a German citizen after five instead of eight years and, in the case of “special integration achievements”, this should even be possible after just three years.

The proposals have already triggered a backlash from the main opposition party in the German parliament – the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) – and from the Free Democrats (FDP), which are a member of the coalition government. Criticisms range from the measures representing a “devaluation” of the German passport to being ill-timed. 

FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai said Monday that, as there had been “no progress” on combating illegal immigration to Germany, now is not the right time to relax citizenship rules.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

However, in view of the current worker shortage in Germany, employment experts and business leaders have come out in support of the proposals. Germany is in the midst of a huge worker shortage and currently needs 400,000 additional workers a year to plug the gap in the labour market and, in their view, simplifying naturalisation laws could help ease this looming crisis. 

The head of the Federal Employment Agency, Andrea Nahles, stressed the importance of immigration for the labour market as a whole and told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday: “Because of demographic change, there is no scenario where we can get by without major immigration.” 

What are people saying?

The deputy head of the SPD parliamentary group, Dirk Wiese, told the Berliner Morgenpost that, by making naturalisation easier, the coalition government will “make Germany more attractive as a location for skilled workers”.

Similarly, the head of the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), Yasmin Fahimi, told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland that easier naturalisation would be a positive signal to millions of people with a migration background in Germany and, at the same time, to all interested skilled workers abroad.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany plans to make immigration easier for skilled workers

According to the chairwoman of the Council of Economic Experts, making naturalisation easier would also strengthen the integration of foreigners living and working in Germany. 

“In view of demographic change and the growing shortage of skilled workers and labour, this is absolutely to be welcomed,” she said.

Federal managing director of the German Association of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (BVMW), Markus Jerger, also told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland that the reduction of bureaucratic hurdles in the naturalisation of software engineers and nursing staff could give Germany a longtime leg up in these fields, which are consistently in need of employees.

Coming to stay

Wido Geis-Thöne from the employer-affiliated Institute of German Economy (IW) pointed out that expeditated naturalisation would also help more immigrants stay in the country and continue working. Until now, many such workers leave Germany again after a certain time, he said. 

READ ALSO: Germany to ease citizenship rules for children of foreign parents

Andreas Jahn, Head of Policy and Foreign Trade at the German Association of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (BVMW), said that having the German passport should encourage people to stay in agriculture in particular – as well as to integrate better – especially in rural areas.