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When it is impossible to help everyone

A recently published book: “Wir können nicht allen helfen” – of which the title translates into English as we cannot help everyone – is about the moral dilemma now facing Germany as a consequence of the refugee crisis. The book is an account by Boris Palmer – the mayor of Tübingen, a town in the state of Baden-Würtemburg in Germany – who was responsible for providing accommodation for refugees in the summer of 2015, when there was an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany. In the book Palmer debates the limits of Germany’s resilience when it comes to integrating over 1.16 million asylum seekers, who arrived in Germany over a period from 2015 to 2016.

The book is interesting because it is written by a green politician, who comes from a political tradition of left wing politics: which has always put the rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups such as refugees fleeing persecution as well as environmental protection at the centre of its policies. Therefore Palmer can inform the reader of the challenges and problems of mass immigration without having an anti-immigrant agenda, which would not have been the case if he had been a member of the right wing AfD party.

In 2015 the town of Tübingen had a population of 85,000 people. By the autumn of that year according to estimates the influx of refugees entering Germany had reached around 800,000, which was set to rise to over one million people at the start of 2016. Palmer explains that as the refugees were distributed to locations across Germany, Tübingen was expected to receive a proportion of one thousandth of the refugee population. This meant the town had to accommodate around 1000 extra people within a period of 18 months, which was likely to rise to around 2000 within a period of 30 months, if the numbers of refugees entering Germany had continued at the same rate. Many of the refugees had fled from the war in Syria and northern Iraq, and had reached Austria and Germany via the Balkan route after first passing through Turkey and Greece.

The first challenge for many local communities in Germany was to find temporary accommodation for the new arrivals. In Tübingen emergency accommodation was provided for refugees in the regional sports hall. This meant that local people had to find other sports venues, which they accepted in a spirit of good faith and solidarity under the exceptional circumstances. In the autumn of 2015 the local authority made 400 spaces available in the sports hall which soon filled up.

It was not long before conditions in the sports hall started to become unpleasant: there were protests and fights amongst some of those who were sheltering there; in February 2016 complaints were made by refugees to a local newspaper that they had been living at the sports centre for months; they also made complaints about the food provided by the local authority there. Employees of the local authority reported to Palmer that they had found the toilets in the sports centre in a terrible condition, saying excrement had been smeared on the toilet walls. A contributing factor to the bad behaviour in the sports hall was the consumption of alcohol by some of the men staying there.

In the book Palmer does not want to put all the blame for the disorder in the sports hall on the newcomers staying there, recognizing that if 400 local Schwabens had been put in such accommodation, it would have ended up with people fighting each other. Part of the problem for all local authorities at that time – after such a large and sudden influx of people – was that resources were overstretched, and it was difficult to find enough social housing for the newcomers.

Palmer wrote of the difficulty of trying to integrate large numbers of people into German society who did not speak German. He was concerned that politicians in central government had not considered the problems of finding employment for people who came from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African countries, many of whom had arrived in Germany without formal qualifications or training. It was estimated that 80 percent of the refugees would not be considered qualified in the German employment market; and that the integration of these people into the country’s employment market once all the necessary education and training had been provided would take a decade.

One of the concerns that many people in Germany had, was the large proportion of young single men among the refugees. Many of these men arrived without being accompanied by any of their family members. German parents of girls – fearing for the safety of their daughters – were willing to accept refugee families in their neighbourhoods, but were unhappy about the single men being accommodated nearby.

At the time of writing this review the reviewer is not aware that “Wir können nicht allen helfen” has been translated into English for sale in the United Kingdom. He bought a copy of the book in its original German language at a bookshop in Cologne, Germany, and has read it and then written a review of it in English. This book is very important to understand the political situation in Germany and the rest of Europe.

In 2015 Angela Merkel made a massive political miscalculation, by opening Germany’s borders to such a large influx of people who were not EU citizens. Many people in Germany have felt that the needs of refugees have been put before those of local people. For many Germans – who are struggling to hold down three minimum wage part time jobs, or are unemployed on Hartz IV subsistence benefit – the newcomers are seen as invaders competing for jobs and housing as well as pushing down pay and conditions for German workers. As a consequence of this situation the AfD was able to win around 13 percent of the vote in the German election of September 2017.

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2017


Palmer, Boris (2017) Wir können nicht allen helfen, Siedler Verlag München, ISBN 978-3-8275-0107-3.

The review entitled “When it is impossible to help everyone” was first published on Jolyon’s Review on 10th November 2017 at

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