A bus that carried 31 Syrian refugees to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office in protest returned on Friday to the small town that organised the road trip widely condemned as a political stunt.
The Bavarian district chief behind Thursday’s journey to Berlin, Peter Dreier, had called it an “act of desperation” as his southern rural area buckled under the strain of a mass influx that brought 1.1 million migrants to Germany last year.
The coach had arrived on Friday evening after a 570-kilometre trip outside the chancellery building of Merkel, who declined to send her staff to negotiate with the provincial official. Berlin city representatives instead went on board and offered the group of men emergency accommodation for a night.
In absurd scenes, some 100 journalists, as well as a sprinkling of anti-Merkel protesters, stayed in a throng around the coach for two hours, while tense-faced Berlin and Bavarian officials negotiated inside, and refugees watched the TV cameras with anguished expressions.
In the end, the bus left with a police escort, and Dreier told the press he was disappointed Merkel’s people hadn’t come to talk to him. He said he would pay for a night in a hotel for the group, out of his own pocket.
On Friday morning, the bus was back on the road to Bavaria, to the southern town of Landshut, which had organised the high-profile trip — with the refugees inside described as angry and disappointed.
Berlin Mayor Michael Maeller called the trip a sign of a “breakdown of solidarity” in how local governments handle the migrant influx, while Bavarian Social Democrats leader Florian Pronold condemned the “PR stunt”.
Only one of the Syrian men — all of whom have official asylum status and are free to move anywhere in Germany — had decided to stay in the capital, while another wanted to head to the northern city of Bremen, Landshut officials said.
Details emerged, meanwhile, about the trip to Berlin, from TV journalists who had been invited to come along for the ride. One refugee, identified only as Ahmad from Damascus, told TV news channel N24 that the group had initially been promised by their Bavarian hosts that “the situation will be better in Berlin”.
At a highway stop on the way, Dreier, who travelled separately by car, is shown telling them that “we will be welcomed in Berlin at the chancellery and then we will be taken to apartments”.
But it quickly dawned on the refugees that things might be more complicated, with one telling N24: “We are a (political) football between Berlin and Bavaria and are being used to change the migrant situation, right?”
In the end, one of the Syrians says: “We feel we’ve been abused, they gave us such hopes.” The trip had been plagued by problems from the start. Of an original 51 who were meant to come, 20 changed their minds Thursday morning and stayed in Bavaria.
On the way to Berlin, the bus once had to turn back after losing one member of the group at a highway rest stop. As the bus headed back Friday, Germany was being blanketed by winter snow storms.