A food bank in western Germany has pushed ahead with plans to prevent more foreigners from accessing its services, despite widespread criticism from aid groups and politicians and an intervention from Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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German news agency dpa said Wednesday that the food bank in the western city of Essen gave out several dozen new access cards to German citizens on Wednesday, while turning down foreigners — the cards are given out every Wednesday and are valid for one year.
"Most of the foreigners who came here were Syrian men who have already received asylum status and who were collecting the food donations on top of the regular welfare they're receiving from the authorities," Joerg Sartor, the head of the food bank, told The Associated Press. "They are not the ones who need it."
Everybody in Germany, regardless of nationality, is eligible for welfare. However, though Germany has a strong social safety net, the country has about 930 food banks that provide basic goods to people who depend on state benefits.
The Essen food bank started excluding non-German citizens six weeks ago, leading to the outcry and one of the bank's truck being daubed with the word "Nazis.
The food bank in Essen said about three-quarters of its users used to be migrants, and that some elderly people and women had been scared away by them.
The move to exclude foreigners drew applause from the far right but was strongly condemned by migrant aid groups.
It also triggered a wider debate about treatment of those on the margins of society.
The head of German charity Caritas, Peter Neher, said it was wrong to pit people in need against each other.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in on the dispute Monday, saying that "one shouldn't run services on the basis of such categorizations" of Germans and non-Germans. However, she added that the situation in Essen "also shows the amount of pressure there is, and how many people are needy."
Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Wednesday that Merkel has called the mayor of Essen to discuss what's going on.
"She hopes that a good solution would be found that won't exclude certain groups," he said, noting that food banks in other cities had successfully tackled similar problems.
German anti-discrimination legislation bars companies and civil society groups from excluding people based on their race or gender, but not nationality.
Asked about the sharp rise in food banks during Merkel's over 12 years in office, Seibert insisted that poverty in Germany hadn't increased, that the country's social safety net was strong and private food handouts merely complement state services.
Germany has seen a huge influx of migrants in recent years. More than one million asylum seekers from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan entered the country between 2015 and 2016.
The presence of the new migrants has stirred up anti-foreigner and especially anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, which is reflected in the increase in the number of attacks against migrants. Fear of migrants helped propel the nationalist Alternative for Germany party into Parliament.
Frank Jordans contributed reporting.