Did Germany’s ‘Refugee Crisis’ Even Exist?

A look inside the imagination of the nation’s leading anti-immigrant party in Berlin.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Jacob Kushner is the author of “Look Away: A True Story of Murders, Bombings, and a Far-Right Campaign to Rid Germany of Immigrants.”

PANKOW, Berlin — As Germany’s far-right party bosses tell it, Berlin exemplifies Germany’s civilizational decline. The capital, they say, is a hotbed of radical Islamist terrorism, where white German women are in danger of being preyed upon by often darker-skinned, Muslim men. 

Eleven years after its founding, Germany’s right-wing populist political party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is surging in popularity due to its anti-immigrant stance. This isn’t just a few xenophobic voters. In some parts of Germany, the AfD is polling ahead of any other party — a reflection of widespread belief among Germans that immigration is their nation’s greatest problem.

In January, journalists revealed a plot by prominent members of the AfD to mass-deport immigrants as well as German citizens of immigrant descent. Meanwhile, the party’s social media blasts out messages like this 2019 Facebook post: “Muslim migrants: Increasing violence and sexual acts since the influx. Stop it!”

That same year, Berlin’s AfD put up political billboards riffing on an 1866 painting of an imagined “slave market” in which brown-skinned men in Islamic head coverings and robes appraised a naked white woman — playing on a centuries-old racist trope. The artist, who traveled in Egypt, had almost certainly never visited a slave market, according to an analysis of the painting cited in The Art Newspaper. 

In 2020, the party posted an article on social media that estimated there were 1,100 Salafists in Berlin, a sect of Islam appropriated by the Islamic State group. “The terror threat is growing daily,” the AfD said on Facebook, incorrectly conflating adherents of the branch of Islam with terrorists.

It’s been six years since I was given an inside look at the AfD’s views on immigration — and immigrants — in Berlin. At the time I was living in the city’s diverse Neukölln neighborhood, investigating prejudice and violence against immigrants.

That September, the AfD had made sweeping gains among voters nationwide, and in some parts of Berlin, the party had won as much as 37% of the vote. For the first time, the anti-immigrant far-right party won seats in the Bundestag, including three seats from Berlin. All told, more than 225,000 Berliners — 12% of the voting public — turned out to vote for the AfD. 

So in 2017, I traveled around one of Berlin’s AfD strongholds, Pankow, Berlin’s most populous and second-largest borough; it stretches northward from the city center into the remote suburbs that felt foreign to Neukölln residents like me. While there I interviewed an AfD party official who explained that Pankow’s AfD faithful aren’t concerned as much about the present, but more about the future.

And so, a decade after the start of Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’ — a fraught term sometimes co-opted by the West to refer to the situation Western nations faced from 2014 to 2016 as millions of refugees who fled war and turmoil in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere attempted to seek safe haven on their shores — I decided to revisit the claims the party made just after the height of the crisis, to see whether the armageddon it predicted had come to pass.

The Right Side Of History

At the time, I was curious to see what it was about diverse, immigrant-infused Berlin that frightened these voters. AfD’s then-Berlin Chairman, Georg Pazderski, invited me to observe a celebratory dinner in a Berlin beer hall to toast the party’s rise in the recent election.

A skinny man struggled to get a projector working to use for his talk. Dressed in a black shirt, he looked like a sound technician, or maybe a wedding DJ, but he was Ronald Gläser, a recently elected member of Berlin’s House of Representatives. Some 100 people, mostly middle-aged or older men, filled the room, chatting and sipping beers at wooden tables draped in red. 

Attendees approached the microphone to make provocative, anti-EU statements or to ask mundane questions about how many taxpayer euros Germany was spending on refugees. Sitting at my table was Beatrix von Storch, the AfD’s second-in-charge who had just become one of the first three AfD Berlin members elected to the Bundestag. She would soon be forced to apologize for falsely blaming a deadly road rampage in Münster on a refugee. (The perpetrator was a white German man.) 

Von Storch raised her head from her salad, walked up to the mic, and began describing the complexities of parliamentary party politics to a crowd that had never before had any reason to know. For clarity, she re-stated her agenda in three, easy-to-understand points: “Anti-Euro, Anti-Migration and Anti-Merkel.”

“Their fears were real — but the basis for them was largely make-believe.”

Gläser, who had continued finagling with the projector during von Storch’s talk, gave up, resigning himself to speaking in front of a bright blue-lit screen. A small banner next to the projector read Wahrheit — truth. Gläser spoke of an ISIS-affiliated truck attack in Manhattan the previous day, which he called “Auto-Jihad.” (Research has confirmed that urban acts of terror can sway voters toward more conservative views.) He described crimes that he alleged were committed by immigrants in different Berlin neighborhoods, including Neukölln, where I lived.

In the back of the room stood Pazderski, smiling, shaking fellow party members’ hands. Recognizing me, he walked over to discuss a request I’d made: With more than 200,000 AfD supporters in one of Europe’s most liberal cities, could the AfD give me a tour of the party’s Berlin strongholds, to show me how immigrants were threatening their constituents’ way of life? 

Pazderski walked my business card over to Gläser, who sent Pazderski back to me with his own. The next day Gläser emailed me the names of half a dozen places I should visit to see the ills that refugees and liberals had wrought upon the city — most of them in Pankow, where the AfD in Berlin received among the most votes. 

“Go to the Mauerpark,” Gläser wrote. “There are drug dealers and criminals [by night]. It’s not hell or something like that, but a twilight place in Pankow. You might see things there which disgust our voters.”

Go see the monuments to communists, like the one in Treptower Park, he added. “Then visit the outskirts of Berlin in Karow or Buch to look at the contrast” — the half-dozen-or-so homes for asylum seekers that he claimed had shattered what was once a perfectly pleasant neighborhood. 

But I would need a guide, an AfD member and native Berliner who could give me a tour of the Pankow the party believed had been destroyed by immigrants. Gläser introduced me to Friedrich Hilse, now deputy chairman of the AfD in Pankow, who turned out to be the perfect guide. 

Hilse hailed from Pankow, a historically white, middle-class district that is also Berlin’s most populous and possibly its most politically diverse, spanning from the left-green stronghold of Prenzlauer Berg near Mitte to the eastern working-class neighborhoods where thousands of refugees were housed, to the rural farm fields of Blankenfelde where horses still trot along cobblestone streets. One in four Pankow residents claim an immigrant heritage, and since the 2014 to 2016 “refugee crisis,” thousands of asylum seekers call it home. 

Hilse offered to show me around the district he grew up in as he contemplated its impending demise. To test Hilse’s claims, I would return to the same neighborhood with three very different guides: Ruhi Hosseini, a teenaged Afghan refugee turned photographer, as well as two Syrian refugees, Anas Mahmoud and Hisham Al Taweel, who volunteered to help newer refugee families integrate there.

Together, these tours revealed much about the AfD’s urban apprehensions. Their fears were real — but the basis for them was largely make-believe. 

Our Town

It was a cool and cloudy December morning, and I immediately recognized my AfD tour guide on the street, an eager, up-and-coming party official with a boyish face. The year was 2017, and tens of thousands of asylum seekers who had been forced to flee wars in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, were settling in Berlin. 

To Hilse, these people spelled trouble. As we started our tour, he warned me that native Germans were being replaced. “It’s not an easy thing to live in a Muslim-dominated society. I want this country to be German in 50 years. Which should be simply a normal feeling, or normal wish.”

To show me Pankow’s political breadth, we had met in the yuppie liberal enclave of Prenzlauer Berg. At Kollwitzplatz, Hilse was overdressed, and a bit out of his element. He wasn’t familiar with the area and didn’t know where we should go. A man walking his dog suggested we try a French-inspired bakery but warned us that they go “a bit heavy on the yeast.” Or we could go to Schlomo’s Bagels. Or better yet, to the locals-only cafe next door, where people sipped flat whites and read progressive magazines. I told Hilse that Gläser had referred to the residents of Prenzlauer Berg as “Brainwashed Green Gutmenschen.” I asked him what that means.

“For [Friedrich] Hilse, these refugees had brought the struggles of their home countries and cultures along with them.”

“I like Ronald Gläser,” he told me. “He’s always kind of direct. What he means is people around here are quite well off. But this area, Prenzlauer Berg, is ethnically relatively homogeneous. These people always talk about how nice multicultural cities are and how good the integration system is. Then they send their children to ethnically homogenous kindergartens. Others have to live with the consequences. There’s a lot of hypocrites around here.”

After we finished our coffees, we drove in Hilse’s small blue BMW to Pankow’s iconic Mauerpark, the one Gläser had told me to visit. The Berlin Wall once passed through it. I asked Hilse what his parents, who grew up in the former East Germany in what is today Thuringia and Saxony, thought about Germany’s so-called “welcome culture” — a term used to refer to the outpouring of public and private support to help immigrants — today. “They have this feeling like, ‘OK, our culture, our country is changing too fast for me,’” Hilse told me. “‘And it’s not changing for the good.’”

Growing up in Pankow, Hilse says his neighborhood and schools were already inundated with immigrants. “There were kindergartens with like 90% Arabs, Turks, he claimed, which was true for some schools in Neukölln during the aughts.

“They barely speak the language, and they come from families where education is [not something] they pursue,” he added, which was not true: “Many refugees arrive with high levels of prior education and corresponding educational aspirations” and “are aware of the world-wide recognition of German higher education” one 2018 review found. And in 2017, just one year after the refugee “crisis” ebbed, one survey found that nearly one-third of refugees already said their German speaking skills were “good” or “very good,” despite that 90% arrived with no German at all.

I challenged Hilse to describe the visible schism between native-born Germans and new immigrants. He told me to ride on the U-Bahn or people-watch in the city’s summertime parks. 

“Have a look — people from Arabia or Turkey, they hardly mix together,” Hilse told me. “They are mostly groups of young men because girls from Turkish and Arabic families, they don’t go out — they’re not allowed to.” (To any Berliner who has visited the city’s immigrant-infused neighborhoods, where women walk to work or take their kids to daycare or to and from school, the statement sounds absurd.)

“It’s not a nice park,” he continued, as we looked at the very banal-looking Mauerpark, its yellow grass dead from winter. “It’s a bit more like a wasteland.” But, I asked Hilse, if the park, and indeed much of Berlin, was becoming a wasteland, how exactly was it the refugees’ fault?

For Hilse, these refugees had brought the struggles of their home countries and cultures along with them. “The state of the countries where those people come from, in the Middle East and Africa, it’s usually quite bad, quite aggressive. They have problems with civil wars. It has a lot to do with the culture as well as religion,” he told me. “I’m quite afraid we’re importing all this stuff here. You always bring your culture with you.”

It wasn’t that Hilse opposed immigration outright. “If I would have the feeling it makes the country more stable, richer … then I would be way more optimistic about it,” he said. “I would be less pessimistic if it weren’t women with headscarves, but maybe Asians.”

(Of course, Hilse wasn’t alone in his tendency to favor some refugees over others. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Germans and other Europeans viewed Ukrainian refugees more favorably than refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia and other nations in Africa and the Middle East). 

But, I asked Hilse: What was the difference between Muslim and Asian immigrants? To him, it all came down to crime, Hilse told me. He claimed that Moroccans, Nigerians, Tunisians were 500 to 1,000 times more likely to commit murder or rape than Germans. Hilse couldn’t provide a source for his statistics.

The reality is, however, that at the time, foreigners in Germany committed fewer crimes than Germans did — less than 8% of all crimes in 2015, despite representing 15% of the population at the time. Those numbers would change by 2022 and 2023. Over the last couple of years, foreigners — including visitors, foreign residents and asylum seekers — were suspects in a disproportionate percentage of crimes; some of that could be the result of widespread racial or ethnic profiling by German police.

“Germans, it turned out, were the ones terrorizing immigrants.”

Still, perhaps the singular event that seemed to give the AfD’s anti-immigrant rhetoric the most credence was the sexual assaults outside Cologne’s central train station on New Year’s Eve 2015. Approximately 650 women reported being sexually assaulted. Many said their assailants appeared to be North African or Arab. In the aftermath, some AfD supporters called the immigrant suspects “Nafris”— racist shorthand for “North African Repeat Offenders.”

In fact, German culture was the reason why only two of hundreds of men accused of the crimes were convicted and sentenced for sexual assault. To find someone guilty of sexual assault, German law required the victim to demonstrate that she or he attempted to physically resist the perpetrator — a difficult burden for the Cologne assaults, which happened very fast.

The events in Cologne compelled German legislators to reform the law to require only a verbal “no means no” standard and to include groping and other acts of “surprise.” The amendment also authorized the swift deportation of foreigners convicted of sexual assaults. 

A 2018 Der Spiegel investigation that looked at hundreds of crime and online news reports against immigrants found that some anti-refugee sex allegations were made up entirely. But when it came to the danger posed by Islamic immigrants, Hilse had stats of his own.

“I’ve heard that we have like 2,000 so-called “Gefährder,”  Hilse told me — a gross exaggeration of a police report about 700 potentially extremist Muslims being monitored by German police. “There’s a growing number of radical Islamists in the country. Even the government thinks so. Basically, I think these are terrorists in the making.”

Events at the time were already proving Hilse wrong: Germans, it turned out, were the ones terrorizing immigrants. Since the 2014 to 2016 refugee crisis, attacks against immigrants across Germany exploded into the thousands. One 2020 study found that the 2015 Cologne assaults had led to a dramatic surge in attacks against refugees. Another 2019 study found that places with the fewest immigrants saw the most attacks

In the Saxon town of Clausnitz, xenophobic residents blocked a bus from carrying asylum seekers sent by the German government to reside in their town. Last year in the federal state of Brandenburg just outside Berlin, anti-immigrant extremists stopped a bus full of immigrant schoolchildren and chanted xenophobic slogans at them, forcing the bus to turn around. 

Since the arrival of these refugees, tens of thousands of Germans have also volunteered to help them learn German, find jobs, integrate — and in some ways, assimilate — as did volunteers at one “Welcome Café” that I visited in Dresden.

And yet, a short drive from that cafe, in Freital, xenophobic German terrorists were busy firebombing refugees’ homes. In another such attack, in Salzhemmendorf, a volunteer firefighter and two far-right friends set fire to an apartment where a Zimbabwean refugee was living with her young children. In 2015, one German man even took advantage of the refugee crisis to kidnap and murder a four-year-old Bosnian boy who’d been standing in line with his family to seek asylum in Berlin.

Pankow itself has a long history of hostility toward foreigners. In 2007, far-right skinheads assaulted three Greek immigrants there, and last year a Syrian woman burned to death in an alleged arson attack on a refugee house. A similar attack occurred in 2019 near Berlin. They both were reminiscent of the waves of arson and other attacks against immigrants that occurred around 2016. In the 2019 attack, police immediately — and incorrectly — suspected an immigrant — just as police had blamed and even framed immigrants each time immigrants were murdered or bombed by the anti-immigrant terrorist group, the NSU, as I chronicle in my book about the case. 

Back on our tour, I informed Hilse of emerging research that showed attacks against immigrants are higher in parts of Germany where AfD support is high. “The world wouldn’t be better if AfD wasn’t there,” he insisted. “There would still be crimes against refugees,” he said, arguing that the AfD might even help reduce attacks against refugees by offering people non-violent, political, democratic ways to express their desires for immigration to slow or stop.  

I asked Hilse how fear instilled by a handful of foreign-born extremists had changed Berlin for the worse. He pointed to the December 2016 terrorist attack by a Tunisian asylum seeker on a Christmas market in Berlin.

“All Christmas markets,” Hilse complained, “are now surrounded by big concrete blocks. “This country has changed — and it has changed for the worse. It looks a bit like a country under siege, not a peaceful, normal country anymore.”

“Hosseini flipped through the photos on his phone to show me that the foreigners Hilse claimed loitered ominously in the local parks were just immigrant families out for a weekend picnic.”

When I asked Hilse about Pazderski’s claim that “most Muslims are not capable of being integrated” in Germany, he agreed, bemoaning how schools had banned pork in their meals to accommodate Muslim students — a common AfD complaint over something that never actually occurred

Plus, a growing body of research suggests some immigrants may be right to resist assimilation and that it may even increase discrimination. “Assimilating differs from integrating because it implies losing one’s identity,” wrote the urban planning scholar Rebecca Nathanson. What’s more, the politics or culture of destination nations like Germany are not inherently right or better than those in immigrants’ home countries.

Hilse also complained about recent attempts to rename streets named after Germans who colonized parts of Africa.

But where could we go to see the tangible — not merely symbolic — manifestations of what these mostly-Muslim refugees were doing to his hometown? “Where we’re heading—Blankenfelde,” Hilse replied as we drove on. “People who live here are quite traditional, which makes them different from the ones we have seen around Kollwitzplatz. In this little spot, the AfD got 37%.” The reason, he says, is “they simply don’t want to see their neighborhood changing, too.” 

The Pankow that Hilse showed me is a segregated one, with distinct lines drawn between white Germans and everyone else — immigrants, Muslims, Blacks. The Germans of Pankow, Hilse explained, want borders — barriers between themselves and Berlin’s largely immigrant underclass. Many of those immigrants, he insisted, want barriers, too. 

Generally, “people want to live with their family, with their peers,” Hilse told me. That’s why he wouldn’t want his children growing up to marry someone who is black. But isn’t that precisely racism, I asked? He paused, thinking it over. “Everybody wants his children to be a bit like himself. It’s quite natural,” he told me. “It’s just a human thing.”

As we walked around a neighborhood where many asylum seekers had settled, Hilse urged me to reappraise a term that many on the other side of the political aisle think of as inherently good.

“Diversity, it’s a word which doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody,” he said. 

Diversity is “a nice thing to have if it’s a minority,” Hilse explained, because “then it’s an enrichment” to the natives — the German whites. 

When we arrived at a working-class neighborhood called Buch, I again asked Hilse to point out the actual problem. As we walked through a small tunnel beneath a train station, Hilse described to me the immigrant men who linger in the tunnel at night, creating an atmosphere where Germans like him don’t feel safe. But all I saw was an empty underpass leading to normal streets lined with normal buildings, and people walking to and fro. As we stood there for a moment of silence, even Hilse seemed unsure of his claims. 

“Here it’s quite untouched, to be honest,” he admitted, as we continued walking on. 

Other Side Of The Tracks

A month after my tour with Hilse, I returned to that very same train station with a very different guide: An 18-year-old Afghan refugee named Ruhi Hosseini. Hosseini, who arrived in Germany three years prior from Bamyan Afghanistan with his parents and brother, walked underneath those train tracks nearly every night.

I asked him, who exactly were the loiterers Hilse had described and derided, underneath the tracks? They were just a figment of Hilse’s imagination, Hosseini told me. The only people who hang out under that bridge are Germans who go there to smoke a cigarette or drink a beer and stay out of the rain. And they don’t bother anyone, besides. 

An amateur photographer, Hosseini went on long walks late at night to photograph Buch’s empty spaces. One of his images is a dreamlike long-exposure shot taken near this very station. Hosseini flipped through the photos on his phone to show me that the foreigners Hilse claimed loitered ominously in the local parks were just immigrant families out for a weekend picnic. Hosseini would know: He spent his days photographing these spaces and streets, documenting them from his point of view. In doing so, he was inadvertently doing what Hilse so feared: claiming a stake in this neighborhood and making it his own. 

At the time, Hosseini was living with his family in a building in Buch that had been constructed specifically to house asylum seekers, despite protests by the AfD. His dreams of asylum were dashed in 2017 when Germany’s legislators gave in to AfD pressure to stop granting automatic asylum to Afghans. Later that year, Hosseini and a dozen other young Afghans in Berlin held a protest. They ripped their asylum rejection letters to shreds and turned the pieces into political art, which they exhibited in a small building in the center of Buch.

“Recent research confirms that such immigrants come not to leech off social services, but to find safety or work.”

The exhibit has since toured across Germany. Celebrated by refugee advocates, it refuted the dehumanization of immigrants as unnamed masses of men. The photos conveyed their hopes and their worries, their aspirations and dreams. 

Hilse hadn’t heard of the exhibit. Walking near that underpass in Buch a month prior, I had pressed him for evidence of how young Muslim men like Hosseini would be Berlin’s demise. I pointed out that the percentage of Muslims in Berlin had increased only by a single percentage, from 5% to 6%, between 2014 and 2017. 

But for Hilse and his fellow party faithful, it’s the future they worry about. What might the country look like in 10 or 30 years? 

“You’re told to think, ‘OK, diversity is always nice.’ But then, where have all your people gone?”

A City Divided In Two

A few days before my tour with Hilse, I had walked through the southern part of Pankow with two asylum seekers from Syria, Anas Mahmoud, then 30, and Hisham Al Taweel, then 41. The pair were “family guides” — volunteers who helped newer immigrants get to know their neighborhoods, access social services, navigate paperwork and settle in. 

Just like Hilse, Al Taweel and Mahmoud experienced Berlin as a segregated city — but from the opposite side. Mahmoud walked me to a Pankow bar where he’d once played ping-pong. I asked him to let me know the next time he went so I could join. He smiled, shyly. This was a German bar, he explained. He wouldn’t dare set foot inside unless a German invited him in. I asked him, where then, do non-Germans go to hang out around here?  Mahmoud walked me down the street to Domino’s Pizza, where immigrants of all nationalities converge. There he feels welcome: Germans, he told me, don’t eat Domino’s.

As we hopped on and off trams and trains, Mahmoud and Al Taweel described the stark difference in the atmosphere between the trains heading toward diverse Neukölln, and ones headed in the opposite direction, toward conservative areas like Pankow’s Blankenfelde and Buch. The former was filled with the chatter of different languages — safe spaces where older immigrants exchanged pleasantries and younger ones flirted. But the latter trains sped down the tracks in silence. 

That’s because immigrant Berliners — nearly one in three passengers — were sometimes scolded by native-born commuters for speaking in foreign tongues. On a westbound train the previous summer, Al Taweel says he was verbally assaulted by a German man who yelled expletives at him while en route to picnic at a lake with two refugee friends. The day before I interviewed him, Al Taweel watched a German man enter the train he was riding and aggressively shove an Arab-looking teenager in the shoulder, leading to a confrontation between them that briefly held up the train.

A few days later, when I told Hilse what Al Taweel and Mahmoud had described, he wasn’t surprised. The U-Bahn is the embodiment of the forced mixing, he says, that urban AfD voters so detest. He too has seen confrontations between Germans and immigrants there. To Hilse, this is proof that native Germans and immigrants shouldn’t mix.

There was, however, at least one place in Pankow where Germans and refugees could coexist. One morning in December 2017 I attended a Christmas talent show in a former Jewish boarding house on Mühlenstraße, now a youth club called M24. There, Muslim children sang Christmas carols in German while their mothers, draped in headscarves, smiled, clapped and took videos. They seemed to be assimilating — and celebrating the very Christian-German culture that Hilse had claimed they would eventually destroy.

But for Hilse, these different religions and cultures were incompatible, he told me during our walk. “I think this whole integration thing isn’t working like it’s told to us,” Hilse told me. “And this [explains] the story of the AfD’s rise.”

Successful Integration

Seven years later, little had changed when it came to the AfD’s stance and rhetoric toward immigrants. “The situation in Berlin is more than worrying,” the party’s Pankow faction posted on its website in 2023. The city should “quickly [return them] to their countries of origin, in order not to overload the city’s social infrastructure.” To the AfD, Pankow is in “crisis.” 

But today these and Hilse’s views seem less like facts than fabrications. In Berlin, government-funded initiatives and volunteers have smoothed, if not outright solved, the so-called “crisis” — the phenomenon upon which the AfD as we know it rose to power.

“The party’s fear-mongering might be better viewed as a desperate reaction to the robust success Berlin has shown at integrating immigrants.”

True, Germany is struggling to construct new housing at the pace necessary to accommodate recent asylum seekers from Ukraine and beyond. But the city helped refugees move from shelters into normal apartments, providing letters to landlords promising to assist them with rent.

Now three out of four asylum seekers who arrived during the 2014 to 2016 “crisis” live in permanent housing. More than half have found jobs. Thousands are enrolled in universities. Special admissions criteria were created to allow newly arrived refugees to attend Berlin universities, including those who hadn’t been in Germany long enough to obtain the standard prerequisites. For his part, Hosseini completed a three-year vocational degree in metal work for constructing windows and door frames, and he’s applying for permanent residency.

Refugees like Hosseini have turned out to be a boon to Germany’s now-ailing economy. Some economists believe Germany still needs more people to fill skilled-labor vacancies in the nation’s workforce due to an aging native-born population and low birth rates. As a result, in 2023 Germany began recruiting more immigrants from Africa.

Recent research confirms that such immigrants come not to leech off social services, but to find safety or work. Last year a study of 160 countries published by my former advisor Tim Müller at the Berlin Institute for Migration and Integration Research, roundly disproved the common claim by the AfD and other global anti-immigrant parties that migrants come to Germany, or other Western nations, simply for a free ride.

To date, seven years after my tour of Pankow, none of Hilse’s and AfD’s predictions about the societal consequences of Germany’s immigrant experiment have come true. By the end of 2015, a mere 3% of Berliners were asylum seekers.

The party’s fear-mongering might be better viewed as a desperate reaction to the robust success Berlin has shown at integrating immigrants. According to a 2018 report on urban integration by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Berlin and other European cities spent millions of euros on integration initiatives including bilingual guides like  Al Taweel and Mahmoud who served as interpreters and translators and helped refugees navigate their new homes. Schools were issued guides on how to integrate refugee children.

A central “Welcome Center” “offer(ed) all newcomers advice about a wide range of services and legal issues regarding immigration and integration,” according to a 2018 OECD report. An all-encompassing “Berlin Pass” granted asylum seekers discounted public transit — even a discount on educational, sporting and cultural events; for example, “concerts, swimming pools, free entrance to local sports clubs and gyms, zoos.”

But the realities of Germany’s great integration success have had little impact on voters for the anti-immigrant AfD. Even if Hilse’s fears of a Muslim, foreigner-dominated city are unfounded, his message is persuasive — and its fear-mongering influence is real: Today, the party’s popularity is strong, despite a recent dip in the polls following public outrage over revelations about the plot by some AfD members to mass deport immigrants. As refugees continue to arrive from around the world, including hundreds of thousands from Ukraine, the party’s persuasive imagination threatens to undermine Germany’s success as a global model for how to integrate refugees successfully.