German charity excludes ‘foreigners’ from food distribution, sparking accusations of racism

A German charity organisation distributing food to the poor has been accused of racist bias after one of its branches excluded “foreigners” from its distribution activities. The organisation in question, named Tafel, essentially functions as a food bank, giving away groceries for free to the needy.

Founded in 1993, the organisation has steadily grown, along with rising poverty levels in Germany. According to its own figures, the Tafel now runs 934 restaurants and more than 2,100 shops in Germany, catering up to 1.5 million destitute customers.1

‘German grannies’ scared away by migrants

On January 10, one of the Tafel’s restaurants in the city of Essen announced that henceforth it would only admit individuals as new customers who hold a German passport. Jörg Sartor, manager of the Tafel’s presence in Essen, defended the decision by arguing that recently arrived refugees had come to push out elderly Germans.

Prior to the arrival of large number of migrants in 2015, 35 per cent of his Tafel’s customers had been, legally speaking, foreigners – although, having lived in Germany for decades, many of them were anything but recent migrants. However, as many Syrians received a legal entitlement to stay in Germany, they also had to leave the asylum shelters where they had been fed. In dire socioeconomic straits, they turned to the Tafels instead.

According to Sartor, up to 75 per cent of his customers had thus become foreigners. He asserted that “German grannies” in particular had been scared away by crowds of refugees, many of whom had shown “a lack of respect towards women.” “When we opened the door in the morning, there was shoving and pushing without any respectfulness for the grandma waiting in line”, Sartor asserted.2

Backlash from politicians, civil society

The measure has been met with significant backlash from civil society organisations and politicians. Chancellor Merkel deplored the measure, saying that the distribution of basic foodstuffs should not be made dependent on national criteria.3

Even the federal chairman of the Tafel organisation, Jochen Brühl, asserted that the charity’s leadership “did not endorse” the step taken in Essen, calling the decision to exclude foreigners “unfortunate”: “For us, hardship and not origins are the yardstick”, Brühl emphasised.4

Thirty social welfare organisations – including the country’s major labour unions, the immigrants’ rights organisation Pro Asyl, and the national-level Tafel charity – signed a declaration, criticising the decision taken in Essen as amounting to ethnic discrimination.5

Failure of the state

Nevertheless, Tafel chairman Jochen Brühl also found fault with the bulk of political and media outrage poured over the Essen branch of his organisation. In particular, he accused the country’s political decision-makers of hypocrisy.

According to Brühl, sharply rising poverty levels had been caused by political decisions in the first place. Yet instead of addressing the issue, politicians had chosen to dump the charge of the growing number of the country’s poor on to struggling charitable associations such as the Tafel – only to pretend to be scandalised now as these organisations are reaching breaking point.6

Speaking to Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, Essen’s Tafel chairman Jörg Sartor struck a similar note. He also was outraged by the fact that the entrance door to his Tafel shop and six of his organisations’ vans had been defaced with graffiti reading “Fuck Nazis!”7

Germany’s growing poverty problem

The predicament of the Essen Tafel is a genuine one. The benefits from Germany’s recent economic growth have been unevenly distributed: while wealth increased at the top end of the income distribution, the squeeze intensified at the bottom. Already by 2015 – i.e. prior to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ – the country’s poverty rate had reached 15.7 per cent.8

According to comparative European data, Germany has the largest low-wage sector in Western Europe, with more than 20 per cent of the working population earning less than two thirds of the mean hourly wage.9 Even after the introduction of a general minimum wage, a 2016 study found that 2.7 million employees earned less than the legally mandated 8.50 € per hour.10

Other issues include a pension system no longer able to support an ageing population, leading to declining pension levels and growing old-age poverty; a legacy of ill-fated family policies placing 44 per cent of single parents at risk of sliding into poverty;11 and a housing crisis coupled with sharply rising rents, which have resulted in roughly 1 million people without a home.12

Competition between the poorest

Housing is indeed a paradigmatic arena in which poor established populations have entered into a toxic rivalry with recently arrived immigrants. Homelessness rose by 150 per cent between 2014 and 2017; a dynamic strongly linked to a lack of affordable housing at the budget end of the rental market.13

The Tafel charity organisation is undoubtedly faced with a similar squeeze: the erosion of the German welfare state at the lower end of the income distribution, coupled with the need to cater to a large number of new immigrant customers, has been too much to bear for many of the organisation’s local branches.

In order to allocate scarce places in a non-discriminatory fashion, many Tafel shops and restaurants across the country have resorted to distributing them by drawing lots. Others stopped accepting any new customers – irrespective of their nationality – for a certain period of time.14

Racist language and the ‘takers’ gene’

It is perhaps above all the language used by representatives of the Essen Tafel in order to defend their discriminatory measures that has unsavoury undertones. Jörg Sartor accused Syrians and Volga Germans (ethnic German repatriates from Russia) of possessing a “takers’ gene” (Nehmergen) and of lacking a “queuing culture”.15

These proposals evoke racial tropes that are both biologistic – the supposed ‘genetic’ inferiority of immigrants – and  culturalistic – the cultural incompatibility of immigrants with ‘the German way of doing things’.

Michel Abdollahi, a German-Iranian journalist, satirist, and performance artist, called out the logic behind these metaphors: “There is no Jews’ gene, no Poles’ gene, no Syrians’ gene, no rape gene, no pickpocket gene, and no takers’ gene. That is profound racism. At one time this country was divided into genes and it ended in a catastrophe.” Abdollahi went on to ask Sartor: “What happens, in fact, if one of these ‘takers’ gene’ Russians who is lacking any ‘queuing culture’ whips out a German passport? Does he get some food, or is he going to have to prove his Germans’ gene first?”16

Culturalist tropes

The German-Turkish Journal, a newspaper catering to the German-Turkish voice in politics, similarly criticised the ways in which racist and xenophobic tropes seemed to constitute the ultimate foundation for the decision taken in Essen.17

In particular, the Journal highlighted the peculiar emphasis placed on the charge of misogyny by Sartor and his defenders. They had justified the exclusion of non-German nationals in part by pointing to the lack of respect for women among some sectors of their non-German clientele. “The image of women that immigrants hold has nothing to do with indigence and hunger”, the Journal wrote – and pointed out that conversations about women’s rights ought to be held in educational institutions and not at a food bank.

Yet in justifying xenophobic measures by pointing to immigrants’ real or suspected retrograde stance on women’s rights, Sartor did not make a particularly original point. Rather, he only latched on to a discourse that has been strongly present in recent German debates about Muslim immigration.

Political capital for fringe voices?

The splinter party Alliance of German Democrats (ADD) took a different path, partly in order to sharpen its political profile. The ADD has pressed charges against Sartor and the Tafel in Essen, on the grounds that the association no longer fulfilled the legal requirements of a non-profit and thus had to be stripped of its legal and fiscal privileges.

The ADD party seeks to address the concerns of Turkish and Muslim immigrants in Germany and is widely considered as the Turkish AKP’s German affiliate. Its electoral significance is, however, marginal: it obtained a mere 0.1 per cent of the vote in Germany’s 2017 federal elections.18

Muslims’ and immigrants’ civic engagement

What is perhaps sorely absent from the debate is a sense that Germany’s Muslims, as well as the descendants of immigrants living in the country, could be anything more than indigent, passive recipients of the generosity dispensed by welfare organisations.

Yet the manager of the Tafel in Hamburg pointed out that a third of the volunteers helping out at his food bank were of foreign extraction, as were many food donors. Against this backdrop, selecting on the basis of nationality was inconceivable, he said.19

In Munich, a mosque opened its doors to the homeless, providing food and shelter for the night.20 Other Muslim charity organisations also organised food distributions for the poor during the cold winter months.21

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