DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - Ashamed by the rise of anti-Islam group PEGIDA in Dresden at the end of last year, local businesswoman Viola Klein was determined to send a signal that not everyone in the eastern German city was hostile to immigrants.
“We spoke with our staff and said we have to do something to counter the view that foreigners have no business here,” said Klein, manager of software developer Saxonia Systems, which has funneled between 80,000 and 100,000 euros ($92-115,000) into refugee projects.
Klein is just one of many entrepreneurs who are using their capital and business skills to help a record-breaking number of refugees integrate into Europe’s biggest economy.
Their efforts come as local authorities brace for the number of asylum seekers to quadruple this year to 800,000 -- more than the population of Germany’s fifth biggest city Frankfurt am Main.
PEGIDA’s weekly anti-Islam, anti-immigrant rallies that attracted large crowds late last year have fizzled out, but the high number of migrants arriving this year is again causing unrest, particularly in eastern Germany, where attacks against asylum shelters are on the rise.
Over the weekend, right-wing protesters pelted police with bottles, stones and fireworks as they were escorting refugees to a shelter in the town of Heidenau, south of Dresden.
After initially putting on language courses for asylum-seekers, Klein noticed around 80 percent owned a smartphone. Drawing on her firm’s expertise, she worked together with local developer Heinrich & Reuter Solutions to develop a free app to help new arrivals negotiate German bureaucracy.
Available in five languages, the ‘Welcome to Dresden’ app gives users assistance on how to apply for asylum, use public transport or find a doctor.
Mohamad Abou Assaf, a 29-year-old Syrian who arrived in Dresden five months ago after traveling overland through eastern Europe, said the app would be helpful for those coming with little grasp of the language.
He has benefited from a free, two-month language course from Saxonia Systems that helped him quickly pick-up German and hopes to start working soon.
“When I came here, my friends said: ‘In the east there is a problem with PEGIDA’. But I don’t think that’s true,” said Abou Assaf who worked as a car dealer in Damascus and hopes to get a similar job in Dresden. “In Syria we have people that are good and bad and the same is true here.”
Other entrepreneurs see refugees as an opportunity for Germany, where the working-age population is forecast to shrink by around 6 million people by 2030 and 15 million by 2060.
“We’re aging and getting older and the shortage of qualified workers is gigantic; our state coffers won’t be able to cope without immigration,” said Gerd Ellinghaus, whose company, Comterra Development GmbH, operates refugee shelters throughout Germany in return for a fee from local authorities.
Ellinghaus is launching a pilot project in Berlin to house and train around 900 refugees in trades where there is a shortage of workers. Around 27,000 apprenticeships are vacant, according to the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts.
To speed up access to the labor market, the German government has reduced how long asylum seekers must wait before they can work and removed the requirement to first seek approval from employment authorities before starting apprenticeships.
But critics say it needs to go further and guarantee that asylum seekers who successfully complete training can stay.
Prinzip Heimat, a company created to help migrants, says a further hurdle is changing firms’ attitudes to refugees. As its first venture, it is raising financing to set-up a 100-room hotel in central Berlin where two-thirds of the staff will have a migrant background.
The start-up is searching for a suitable building or plot of land and is in talks with existing hotel operators as well as architects of so-called ‘container hotels,’ with a view to opening the doors at the start of 2017.
Prinzip Heimat’s Catherine Daraspe said the aim of the project, which is being run as a business not a charity, was to create a complete change in how refugees are perceived: “We want people who have fled their own homes to become hosts.”
Editing by Robin Pomeroy