In a German town with an unrivalled record of welcoming migrants and making them feel at home, excited children wave from carousel rides as shoppers chattering in German and Arabic mingle.
On the face of it, it’s a relaxed scene of which Angela Merkel, the German leader, would surely approve.
Except that here in Salzgitter, things are abruptly changing. It’s pro-refugee Mayor has declared a moratorium on any more foreigners coming to join the 5,800 who have already arrived.
He admitted a few weeks ago: ‘Right now, we are overwhelmed. We have received too many in too short a time. The locals are having fears for the future.’
Even the migrants living in Salzgitter, which sits on a lake in Lower Saxony, north-west Germany, agree there is a crisis.
‘Not everyone can come or there will be nowhere to sleep and no free chairs in the schools,’ says Khaled Rasti, a 32- year-old Syrian from Damascus, who with his wife Slivi, 30, is wheeling two-year-old Jodi — one of their three children — in a pushchair near the Christmas market.
‘We have worries,’ he says. ‘I am still learning German. I do not have a job. There are many like me.’
This town’s decision to refuse any more migrants is a slap in the face for Mrs Merkel, who relentlessly lectured her nation that ‘We can do it’ when she unilaterally welcomed 1.5 million migrants, many of them Muslim, from the war-shattered Middle East and impoverished African states in 2015.
Today, increasing numbers of ordinary Germans feel the influx has been too large and too fast for the incomers to integrate properly.
Already, six per cent of the German population is Muslim.
And this week an international think tank warned the numbers will only increase, and predicted Europe’s Muslim population could double by 2050, due to migration and high birth rates among those who have already reached the continent.
The Pew Research Centre forecast that if both regular migration and the heavy flows of refugees were to continue, this deeply Christian country will have the highest number of Muslims in the EU, amounting to 17.49 million people or 20 per cent of the population.
This uncontrolled immigration is seen as a key factor in the reversal of Angela Merkel’s fortunes.
It is directly responsible for the rise of a new anti-migrant party, the radical Right-wing Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which in September’s national election gained 13 per cent of the vote and its first ever parliamentary seats.
Coupled with her own poor performance in the election, the success of the AfD is the reason Mrs Merkel has been unable to form a coalition government.
The irony of all this is that for three decades, in an attempt to expunge the legacy of its Nazi past, Germany has championed multiculturalism and liberal democracy — only to find that its recent openborders immigrat ion pol icy, introduced without a vote in Germany’s parliament, has rekindled the flames of the radical Right.
In the town of Salzgitter, AfD support was even higher at 14 per cent than it was nationally.
But if Mrs Merkel is shocked at events since she provoked the biggest migration wave across Europe since World War II, so are many of the newcomers.
They believed Mrs Merkel’s promise of giving them homes, jobs, an education and money with few questions asked. Now they — as well as many Germans — fear they are not becoming part of the wider society, and never can be because their numbers are so huge.
No place illustrates the shattered Merkel dream better than Salzgitter.
It took in a higher proportion of migrants compared to its population than any other part of Germany.
Ninety-one per cent of those migrants in the town today are jobless and live on benefits, according to new statistics from town officials, compared with a slightly less dismal picture nationally for migrants of 84 per cent.
One of the charities trying to find them work says they are only qualified for the simplest of jobs because of low education.
‘We just don’t have the jobs that these people could take,’ a volunteer explained. But aside from the problems of work and welfare are the sheer numbers who have arrived.
A mother taking her six-year-old to a Salzgitter school this autumn found that her child was one of two German children in her class amid 20, mostly Syrian, migrants.
‘I’m not against foreigners,’ said the woman. ‘But there is a point where we have to wonder who is integrating with whom.’
What’s particularly fascinating about this town is that it is the officials who are backing the mayor’s policy stopping the arrival of further migrants.
Dincer Dinc, a German of Kurdish descent who is a Salzgitter’s integration chief, says he agrees with the moratorium — which two other overburdened German towns in Lower Saxony copied last week.
Salzgitter took in a higher proportion of migrants compared to its population than any other part of Germany
‘We need a break from more newcomers to help those who are already here,’ he says.
‘What good will it do for more to come so that the problems we have keep compounding?
The town’s image is changing for residents. They encounter more and more people with darker skin and wearing headscarves.’
Both he and the mayor, Frank Klingebiel — a member of Merkel’s CDU party — believe the ban will stop more local voters embracing the xenophobic and populist Alternative for Deutschland.
The reason the town encouraged migrants in the first place is the same one that drove Mrs Merkel to invite them in.
Germany has an ageing population and needs new blood to drive the economy. Back in 2013, Salzgitter was in the doldrums.
It was established during World War II to house workers from a nearby steel factory used to produce armaments for Hitler’s war machine.
But a few years ago, it became clear that young people were leaving for the bright lights and jobs in big cities.
The population — as in the rest of Germany — was predicted to drop dramatically because of the falling birth rate.
In Salzgitter, population was expected to fall from 100,000 to around 90,000 by 2030.
Houses lay empty, schools were short of pupils, and the shopping centre, scene of the jolly Christmas Market this week, was often deserted.
‘If this keeps going on, there won’t be a town any more,’ one 78-year-old pensioner, Herbert Haschke, told the local newspaper at the time. Then came the migrants and Salzgitter saw its salvation.
The town hall produced welcome leaflets for the incomers, the locals waved flags and soon word got round that this was a safe-haven with plenty of vacant housing and school places.
The mayor himself says that in those early days ‘ everything was perfect’.
‘But in the second half of 2016, [local] people approached me for the first time,’ he explains now.
‘They were worried about overcrowding. We have kindergartens and schools where the proportion of migrant children is between 60 and 80 per cent. -Mailonline
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