German civics classes for migrants get mixed verdict

16th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Facing rows of migrants in a German refugee centre, Bavaria's justice minister delivers a civic values class and fires off questions at people from the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Facing rows of migrants in a German refugee centre, Bavaria's justice minister delivers a civic values class and fires off questions at people from the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

"Who in this room knows people of the Jewish faith?" Winfried Bausback asks his audience in the makeshift classroom.

"Do you think it's OK to beat your children?... Would you allow your sister, or your daughter, to choose her husband?"

Many of the 60-odd migrants stare into the mid-distance or at their hands, while others look perplexed.

Undeterred, the minister pushes on: "Who among you has experienced corruption in their country?"

"Can you repeat the question?" one migrant asks gingerly and in halting English.

While Bausback speaks German and an interpreter delivers English translations, his message is lost on many in the audience who speak neither language.

Boredom spreads in the converted gymnasium of the Bayernkaserne army barracks, and some of the invited media cringe at the performance.

The lessons on German civic values and laws are part of a Bavarian state government drive to help integrate refugees into their new host culture.

More than one million migrants came to Germany last year, most from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as African countries.

Fears about how well they will fit in have been heightened by mass brawls in overcrowded shelters and a spate of sexual and criminal attacks blamed on North African men in Cologne's chaotic New Year's Eve festivities.

While the historic influx has sparked a massive volunteer effort, it has also triggered a spike of xenophobic hate crimes, including arson attacks on buildings designated to become shelters.

- 'Law for the people' -

Bavaria, Germany's southern gateway state for refugees arriving via the Balkans route, has harshly criticised Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy, but is also eager to showcase its integration project for those already here.

It plans to conduct at least 60 of the civics classes in coming weeks, with dozens of judges and prosecutors volunteering their time to speak about the basics of criminal, civil and family law.

"We teach them the rules of living together within society, of democracy, of equality between men and women," said Munich district court president Reinhard Nemetz during Wednesday's media visit.

"We also remind them that they don't just have obligations, they also have rights: freedom of religion and freedom of thought, for instance."

In the classroom, a sign reads "the Law is there for the People", and there are brochures on societal mores and several short films.

The effort is no doubt well-intentioned, but some find the tone patronising.

Sitting in the front row, 18-year-old Syrian Mohammed Zidan is puzzled by the minister's questions.

"Everybody knows the rules!" he later tells AFP. "I know stealing and violence are bad, it was the same in Syria.

"But here, they talk about it as if it were something new for us. And this way of telling it... I don't find it correct."

- Crime and Punishment -

Beside him, 28-year-old Congolese Johnny Basola said he felt neglected compared to refugees from what Germany considers priority countries.

"In the beginning they asked, 'where are you from? Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan?'"

"They didn't even care about the presence of other nationalities. They teach us rules but they show us from the beginning that rules are not the same for everybody," he complained.

Sahid Salle Koroma, 25, from Sierra Leone, said he enjoyed the class.

"We learn what we can do and cannot do, what punishment do we get for which crime," he said. "It's useful."

But Afghan journalist Habib Amiri, 25, argued that Germany should focus on language lessons rather than legal principles that, at any rate, mostly match the jurisprudence of other countries.

"In our country you're not allowed to steal either. And violence against children is forbidden too," he said, arguing that the key difference is the ability of a government to enforce the laws.

"It would be better to open spots for German classes."

Zidan, of Syria, agreed, and asked pointedly if it is really the refugees who are most in need of brushing up on law and civics.

"Shouldn't they also give classes about living in society to those who burn down refugee centres?"

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