Making money out of the migrant crisis

A family sits beneath a tree in front of an air dome currently serving as a refugee accommodation in Taufkirchen, Germany, 05 August 2015.Image copyright

Last year a record 1.1 million people sought asylum in Germany – and while politicians have been busy arguing over how best to deal with the influx of migrants, others have been making money out of it.

Raphael Hock is one of life’s optimists.

He has reason to be. At 22, he is fit, highly qualified, bilingual, drives a smart car, is fresh back from a skiing holiday in the Alps and is heir to a multi-million euro family business.

Hock is driving me past whitewashed mansions among the birch trees of Gruenwald, on the southern outskirts of Munich. We’re in the most prosperous part of one of the most prosperous cities on Earth. These houses – with their pools and barbecue decks – belong to bosses of famous manufacturing firms and to football players of Bayern Munich.

But even this neighbourhood has had to bunk up a little to accommodate some of the hundreds of thousands of penniless migrants who have just arrived.

We’ve just visited a so-called care dome, one of 15 around the city owned by Hock’s company and leased to the local government. It’s an inflatable hall, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, housing 300 men from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and West Africa who crossed much of the Middle East and southern Europe to get here. They stay, for free, in warm bunk rooms, eat three meals a day, play table tennis, get pocket money and wait for news of their asylum claims.

Hock, as you’ll have gathered, is no charity worker. Along with many entrepreneurs like him, he’s part of what the German papers are calling the “refugee industry”. He used to provide accommodation for sports clubs but he diversified in a hurry and it’s paying. He predicts a 37m euro annual turnover for his company within two years.

And like him, the German government is opportunist. It could be said to have seen a gap in the market and decided to fill it.

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I remember a spartan day room in a care home in Wittenberg, in former East Germany, 10 years ago – and a 90-year-old woman singing the saddest of songs about her friends getting old and dying. I was making a documentary about what the country called its “demographic time bomb”. I talked to politicians about Germany’s ageing population, its dramatically low birth rate and the looming disaster of a future lack of young, tax-paying workers to keep the country viable.

At the time, the economy was still struggling with the effects of reunification, and unemployment was at a 70-year high. Any suggestion that Germany’s solution could be mass immigration would have been greeted with laughter and “Who would want to come here?”

I’ve never met Angela Merkel – not for want of trying – but she doesn’t strike me as a person prone to acts of selfless charity. I imagine she’s heard the predictions that – in the short term – extra demand for goods and services from a million newcomers could give the German economy a bounce of up to 2% a year. And I expect she has heard predictions that, in the long term, lots of youthful foreign workers – once educated, trained and taught German, of course – could be the country’s economic saviours.

A man in a Hugo Boss suit said to me in the cosy office of a think tank near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate that there were no fiscal arguments against the migrants, just political ones.

So don’t be surprised by the fact Germany’s powerful – and business-minded – tabloid press are still on side with the refugee project, or that the police in Cologne were reluctant to admit asylum seekers were among those accused of now infamous assaults in a crowd on New Year’s Eve.

But don’t underestimate, either, the extraordinary good will and generosity of Germans still volunteering in their millions to show that their country is a humane destination for the desperate. Among those I met, a single mother who invites homeless Syrians to sleep on her sofa every night and a retired school teacher who spends six days a week introducing sub-Saharan Africans to German grammar.

And maybe there’s a big divide between them and Raphael Hock and the millions he’s making selling refugee accommodation to the government. But I’d warmed to him even before I found out he’d personally painted the flower stencils on the grey corridors of his care dome, before he’d mentioned that his girlfriend was a Kosovan Muslim, before he’d promised to change the catering company when two Afghan men complained they were sick of spaghetti. Hock told me Germany not only needed its refugees, it also had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to define itself by the way it treated them.

I don’t know whether optimistic, rich Raphael best sums up modern Germany’s steely pragmatism or its warm-hearted humanity. But I think there’s a healthy dose of both in a country that’s opened its doors to a million strangers pretty much overnight.

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