German Angela Merkel at crossroads as anti-immigrant sentiment grows

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to keep the European Union together, but in doing so she is slowly tearing Germany apart.

After more than a decade at the top, she is at a crossroads.

Division within his own coalition – and discontent in traditionally conservative Bavaria – threatens to derail his rule.

Its open-border policy saw more than a million refugees pour into the country in 2015.

Today, despite declining immigration figures, many Germans believe she puts Europe ahead of her own country.

In Bavaria, growing anti-Merkel and anti-immigrant sentiment, sparked by the insurgent party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), is gaining ground as the state heads towards regional elections.

The conduct of these elections could have ramifications in an already fragmented Europe.

Backed into a corner, Merkel must decide whether to sacrifice her “Open Europe” philosophy or compromise her beliefs to save her political career.

A refugee sees Germany as a bastion of hope

Churchill Nkemcho’s journey began in Nigeria. In the past three years, he has traveled through Libya, Italy and Germany — twice.

He was deported to Italy seven months ago under the Dublin rule, which allows EU countries to send migrants back to their first country of entry.

“I’d rather die here than go back to Italy,” he told the ABC, seven months after arriving in Germany for the second time.

The chances of him staying in Germany are slim.

Statistically, it is unlikely that more than one of the six Nigerian men of his carpenter class will stay and make a living here.

Yet he – like many refugees – sees Germany as a beacon of hope.

Mr. Nkemcho stands alongside five compatriots, taking daily lessons and building small wooden frames in the hope of one day impressing a German employer.

“I wanted to join the system. I want to contribute. I want to pay my taxes,” he says, sawing wood for a small box.

Nigerian refugee Churchill Nkemcho said he wanted to contribute and pay taxes in Germany.(ABC: Lisa Millar)

Mr. Nchemko knows that his mere presence in Germany is controversial.

One of his teachers is Holger Godderz, who runs the Lernwerkstatt program for refugees.

“They don’t start coming to Germany because it’s fun,” Mr Godderz said.

“From my point of view, these people are not just going to disappear.

Right-wing candidate: We must close the borders

Hundreds of miles away, in the Miesenbacher Valley outside Ruhpolding in Upper Bavaria, farmer Markus Plenk explains why he is running for office now.

“We have to close the borders,” he said. “The Bavarians are different from other Germans.”

“We are a traditional people. We care about our culture and things need to change quickly.

A man wearing glasses and a baseball cap stands in front of a green landscape with fields, a barn and hills in the background
Mr Plenk says if the AfD wins in October it could be the beginning of the end for Ms Merkel.(ABC: Lisa Millar)

Mr. Plenk is a candidate for the insurgent AfD, a right-wing party which could win up to 20% of the vote in the Bavarian elections in October.

He lives in stereotypical German countryside: flowers glisten in the hanging planters of German lodges and clouds hover above the rolling dairy fields of the Chiemgau Alps.

His party has gained prominence for its tough stance on border protection – leading the conversation on border control.

Mr Plenk says the German government’s current compromise is a “big show”.

“If we win in October, it could be the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel,” he said.

But border policy in Europe remains complex.

The Schengen agreement, which allows the free movement of people between member countries of the European Union, is the whole point of an “open Europe” – for its economic and practical advantages.

But a growing number of Bavarians are ready to sacrifice these principles to save their homogeneous society.

Border town on the front line of immigration

Historically, the German border town of Freilassing was part of Salzburg in Austria.

For 19 years Mayor Josef Flatscher has overseen the city and remembers how until 2015 both cities lived without borders.

But during the refugee crisis, everything changed and 165,000 refugees streamed over the Saalbrucke Bridge into its small town of around 15,000 people.

“It was overwhelming,” Mr. Flatscher says.

“Three years later, our city is still a hotspot for migrants.”

A man in a black suit, white shirt and tie holds an umbrella while standing in front of a bridge over a river
Mr Flatscher says he cares about the refugees but is also worried about the safety of the German people.(ABC: Lisa Millar)

Witness to the front line of Germany’s migration problem, this border town now theoretically reinforces the “border”.

Every day, a handful of police set up random stops and check two-hour blocks at the border twice a day.

During the remaining 20 hours per day, the border is completely open.

Now a suggested solution is to build transit centers in border towns like Freilassing.

“I have two hearts – one for refugees seeking a better life, but I also have to worry about the safety of the German people,” Mr Flatscher said.

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