- Gangs of migrants congregate around the town’s tower blocks in intimidating fashion
- 400 Romanians and Bulgarians have moved into one tower block
- Neighbourhood is now a hotspot for crime and anti-social behaviour
- Duisburg council tell Britain to be on their guard as the migrants will move to take advantage of our benefits system
Softly-spoken pensioner Marlene Bothge seems an unlikely owner of a 200,000-volt stun gun, but after her neighbours stole the light bulbs from the corridor of the seven-storey tower block in which she used to live, she no longer felt safe without it.
‘I am sad it has come to this’, she says. ‘This is a weapon young people carry, not 65-year-old women. I should not feel threatened in my own home.’
As we talk outside the crumbling tower block, now surrounded by rubbish, discarded furniture and human excrement, Mrs Bothge fidgets nervously with her long grey plait. This was her home for 18 years until she and her husband moved out of their fifth-floor flat in November when the filth, noise and crime became unbearable.
In the past 12 months, 400 Romanians and Bulgarians have moved into the block of 46 flats in Rheinhausen, a once-respectable suburb of the German city of Duisburg. Local officials claim they have migrated here en masse in anticipation of the social welfare they will be entitled to next year.
From January 2014, all 29 million citizens of Romania and Bulgaria will gain full rights to live, work and claim benefits here under EU ‘freedom of movement’ rules.
Many of the German city’s new residents are Roma gypsies who have travelled here together from the villages of Fântânele, in Romania, in search of a better life. Those villages are now deserted, while in Duisburg, flats designed for families of three or four have up to 15 people squeezed into them. For this, they pay £350-a-month — seemingly biding their time for the next ten months.
Unable to work or speak German, and with the schools already full, the Romanians and Bulgarians congregate in their dozens outside the tower block each day. The neighbourhood is now a hotspot for crime and anti-social behaviour.
Bad attitude: This gypsy boy shows his disdain at being snapped, while right, Roma woman Maria Marin (in headscarf) would like to come to the UK next year
The block — known by its address, 3-5 In Den Peschen — had never been one of Duisburg’s more luxurious dwellings, but for years it was kept in good order by its houseproud German residents. Gradually they have nearly all moved out as the new arrivals have moved in. There are now only three German families left. Housewife Mrs Bothge quietly explains why.
‘They defecate and urinate in the corridors and the stairwells — the adults and the children,’ she says of the Bulgarians and Romanians. ‘The men play card games outside the flats and, if they need the toilet, they just pull their trousers down and do their business right there. They have working toilets so I cannot understand it.
‘The stairwell became so dirty that I didn’t want my children to visit anymore. There were rats everywhere and the noise was so bad at night. They stripped the corridors of everything. The paintings and plants I had bought to make it look nice, even my mop when I left it outside for 15 minutes.’
As she speaks, children run around the grounds beneath the tower block playing and screaming, while groups of men — one man carries a crowbar — sit on the walls drinking red wine from the bottle. The women shout to one another from their balconies, occasionally throwing bottles and packaging on to the ground below. The children are so used to being hit by debris that they shield their heads as they run beneath the balconies.
A girl of seven or eight walks along a row of cars nearby and checks the door handle on each one. Perhaps it is a child’s innocent game. Perhaps not. The stench of human waste hangs in the air.
As we approach the block to take some photographs of Mrs Bothge, a group of young men runs over to us, shouting: ‘Go away grey-hair. It’s not good for you here. You go! Now!’ We quickly withdraw.
The mother-of-two is too nervous to have her picture taken that day. While still in the tower block, the Bothges lived in fear of being burgled or mugged. Mrs Bothge bought the stun gun and pepper spray for protection. Four months ago, when a neighbour tried to pick the lock on their flat door, the couple finally gave up and moved to another rented flat.
Nevertheless, Mrs Bothge says she does not blame the Romanian and Bulgarian people, but the European policy-makers. ‘They do not integrate into German society because they have no jobs, they do not speak the language and the children are not in school,’ she says.
‘We do not want them to go away, we know they are poor, but money needs to be spent to help them integrate. We feel let down by the EU. They should have realised this would happen when they opened the doors to such poor countries.’
With no means of earning money, police say some Romanians and Bulgarians are turning to crime — or using their children to commit crimes. Police officer Hanna Beuckmann says pick-pocketing and prostitution is now ‘a big problem’ locally, while the council admits some residents ‘have been mugged two or three times and are scared to go out’.
Last week Soeren Link, the city’s Left-wing mayor, made global headlines when he said the Romanians and Bulgarians were dumping piles of rubbish ‘taller than I am’ and sending their children on ‘stealing missions’.
He was ‘quite sure’ that most of the 6,700 Romanians and Bulgarians in Duisburg — population 488,000 — were aware of the social welfare they will be entitled to in the New Year. ‘I expect most of them will claim benefits’, he said.
Many are uneducated or unskilled, and will struggle to find work in a city where unemployment is at 16 per cent. Yet they arrive at a rate of 200 every month. The council estimates that from next year it will cost £15 million a year to house and feed them. The city is now appealing to the EU for financial help to cope with the influx.
Mr Link believes that Britain — known for its similarly generous welfare system — will also suffer the ‘consequences of opening the EU to these states’.
Retired architect Hans Halle, 65, and his wife Helga, 63, live in a six-bedroom house opposite the eyesore at 3-5 In Den Peschen. Last month, they learned that their £200,000 home had plummeted in value to £78,000 in a single year, following the arrival of the Romanians and Bulgarians.
The Halles had planned to downsize after their children moved out, but can no longer afford to do so. Grandmother Mrs Halle says: ‘A year ago this was a normal area but it is now a slum. We feel defeated and we feel angry at the EU.’ The Halles feel terrified in their own home and have been spat at, threatened and had their car vandalised.
‘The women here don’t go out at night. I even call my husband to escort me from the car to our front door. It’s not a life any more.’
The tower block is owned by Branco Baresic, the owner of Duisburg’s largest brothel, Sexxx Palace. Mr Baresic, an overweight man with a manicured beard and a black trench coat, arrives at the flats once a month to collect his rent in cash from the ‘head’ of the community.
He told the Mail: ‘I rent it out and, after that, I don’t care who stays — their aunt, their uncle, their brother.’ He declined to take the Mail inside the building because, ‘I could not guarantee your safety’.
Officials estimate that half of the residents are children. Mr Baresic laughs when asked about this.
‘They have many babies because of the money they get for the children,’ he says. Although Romanians and Bulgarians are not yet eligible for full benefits, a loophole in the EU rules allows residents to claim £156 a month for every child they have if they register as self-employed.
Similarly, Bulgarians and Romanians who register in Britain as self-employed — and selling the Big Issue counts — are eligible for a National Insurance number and a wealth of hand-outs, including housing, council tax and child benefit.
The Department for Work and Pensions says the average claimant (across all nationalities) receives £390 a month in housing benefits and £65 a month in council tax benefits. They can also claim £88 a month for their first child and £58 a month for any child after that. It means someone with three children could collect £660 a month in benefits.
Already at least 500 Romanians and Bulgarians in Duisburg have registered as ‘self-employed’. Mrs Bothge believes these generous child benefits help explain why 14 pregnant women moved into the flat opposite her last spring. She says: ‘I called the police when I heard screaming and they told me the noise was a 13-year-old girl giving birth.’
Roberto, 46, who lives in a three-bedroom flat, admits he claims benefits for all nine of his children — £1,400 a month — but insists he’d rather be working. The slim, weathered Romanian stands in his faded kitchen smoking, while his baby granddaughter clings to his legs.
He says: ‘I did not have enough money to feed my family in Romania. I only earned £175 a month. We have come to Germany because it is the economy’s motor. It is wrong to say the Roma come here for social welfare. We are a big family and won’t survive on social welfare alone. We want to get the kids into school and I want to find work. We are not like all the others. There are good and bad in every nation.’
In the nearby neighbourhood of Untermeiderich, a group of 100 Romanians and Bulgarians have recently moved into an empty block of flats.
Father-of-four Vasile, 23, is from Romania. He claims he is better off in Germany, even without a job. ‘In Romania, I got 10 euros a month for the children, here I get 200 euros,’ he says. ‘We feel comfortable here.’
He has no occupation but finds work ‘here and there’. What sort of work? ‘Metal collecting’. If he fails to find a job next year in Germany he will come to England. I would like to go to Britain because I have heard it is nice and they look after you,’ he says.
Two doors away, single mother-of-four Maria Marin, 35, also has hopes of moving to Britain. She moved to Duisburg with her brother and sister and their families and pays £400 a month rent for her three-bedroom flat. As she talks, she shows off a set of gleaming gold teeth.
‘We live off social welfare but it is very little so I go metal collecting to pay my rent. I don’t like it here, it is a miserable city’, she says. ‘I’d love to come to England next year because they have good social welfare for children.’ Up to a third of the cars parked on the road at 3-5 In Den Peschen have British number plates, suggesting that many of the residents are already living in Britain for part of the year.
Others have Spanish and Italian number plates.
Mrs Halle says: ‘They are moving around Western Europe looking for a better life. They will come to the UK, too, I feel sorry for you already.’
Romanians and Bulgarians who spoke to the Mail said they already had friends and family in England, mostly working as labourers.
Council press spokesman Frank Kopatschek says Duisburg’s problem will soon be Britain’s problem. He says: ‘They have come to us first because we are closer, but it is well known the English benefits system is good, too. They are poorer than you can imagine, so any kind of life here is better than what they know. They will move to rich countries where they know they can get money.’
It would be utterly wrong — and this needs to be stressed — to characterise the Romanians and Bulgarians as scroungers. Clearly many want to work. But equally it would be wrong to deny that in Duisburg tensions between the incomers and local residents are rising.
On Tuesday, a march organised by the German equivalent of the English Defence League will pass through Duisburg. Civil rights groups are organising a counter-march and police are expecting trouble.
Mother-of-two Karin Sommer, 57, is one of the few Germans left in 3-5 In Den Peschen. She rarely leaves her home and has been verbally abused by the Roma residents for allowing the media to film the chaos from her balcony. She watches as two boys play with a discarded tyre in the courtyard below, stopping only to stick up their middle fingers at her.
She says sadly: ‘They are allowed to work here next year but where can they work? There are not even enough jobs for the German people. Many more will come and where will they all live? The EU have told everyone: “Come in, come in”, but they made no preparations and we are the ones left with the problem.
‘We have been left to deal with it and we feel completely alone.’