ESSEN, Germany—Thomas Kufen, the mayor of this rust-belt town in western Germany, thinks his city has a bad case of refugee overload.
Since the beginning of the year, some 7,150 refugees have flocked to Essen from other towns, twice as many as the city was allocated for the whole year under Germany’s complex burden-sharing mechanism. This, Mr. Kufen says, is more than it can handle.
So when parliament passed a law this summer allowing overburdened cities to send jobless refugees back to the states where they were first assigned, Mr. Kufen thought he had found the solution to his problem.
“As a big city we already are doing integration work for the entire country. But there is a limit to our capacity that we don’t want to put to the test,” Mr. Kufen said.
The case of Essen and the new residency restrictions underlines how Berlin is scrambling to regain control of last year’s historic refugee inflows and to fend off a mounting popular backlash. It also shows that while Berlin has gradually tightened its liberal policies, the goal of integrating the newcomers remains fraught with pitfalls.
When the flow of refugees reached its peak a year ago, Germany initially dispatched the newcomers across the country, spreading the cost of looking after them. But once the migrants had obtained asylum, they were free to settle anywhere.
As a result, some regions, like the old industrial Ruhr area, with housing left empty after a coal-mining decline and already existing migrant communities, have become magnets for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.
With many unable to support themselves because they can’t speak German or don’t have the right job qualifications, the influx is turning into a heavy financial burden.
Since Aug. 6, refugees who don’t work or study have to live in the state they were originally sent to for three years. In Essen, that means some 2,500 refugees who moved here, but failed to register before then, are being told to leave and those who received benefits will be cut off.
Mazen Sheikh Alhadedeen is one of those asked to go. After struggling to find an apartment in the Bavarian village of Miltenberg, the 26-year-old moved to Essen with his wife. But he said he couldn’t get an appointment to register with the overstretched immigration office in time.
“I have an apartment now, a place in German class, I don’t want to go back,” Mr. Alhadedeen said. He is challenging the rule in court. City officials said they are aware of a growing number of court filings.
That’s just one hurdle in enforcing the law. The legislation leaves open many questions—such as which administration is in charge, who can be exempted, and whether cities can force refugees to leave, officials say.
Maisoun Mahmoud Khalaf, a 45-year-old Syrian, feels caught amid the uncertainty. After Essen warned her in a letter that she would stop receiving benefits, she agreed to move back to Schwerin in eastern Germany with her 7-year-old son.
Days before the looming deadline last month, local authorities hadn’t told her who would pay for her transportation, so she took the offer of a driver for €350. She had only just bought the bed and fridge for the newly renovated apartment she left behind.
“I regret I moved now. If only I had known about all this trouble,” she said. A social worker in Schwerin found her a place to stay for the first month. “But then what?,” she asked
Mr. Kufen acknowledged some people are hit hard but insists the law is vital. In 2015, Essen spent €130 million ($145 million) on refugees, only half of which is reimbursed by the federal government, he said. Kindergartens, schools and housing will cost millions more.
The neighboring city of Gelsenkirchen, also popular with migrants, is equally concerned. Some 800 refugees who were told to return to other states will be cut off from social benefits at the end of October.
“I don’t know if we would do the refugees a favor by allowing them to stay,” said Hans-Joachim Olbering, in charge of social affairs for Gelsenkirchen. “We have an unemployment rate of 15%. What sort of an integration prospect can we offer to someone except social benefits and an apartment?”
Essen’s and Gelsenkirchen’s popularity with migrants has taken a first toll: Apartments are becoming rarer. And some of the changes brought by the newcomers aren’t to everyone’s liking.
Earlier this year, citizens protested plans to build refugee shelters in Essen’s north.
“Some people feel things have been going only downhill for years here so that’s where we said ‘stop,’” said Theodor Jansen, a member of the council of Altenessen, where over 30% of people live on social benefits.
That Mr. Jansen is a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, a ruling party in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition in Berlin and a strong backer of the country’s open-door policy, illustrates the rift.
The government is fighting a strong force. Migrants tend to group among those who share the same language and customs, and efforts to prevent them from doing so have often been ineffective, reasearchers say.
Fearing migrant ghettos, the West Berlin state government banned foreigners from settling in some neighborhoods between 1975 and 1990, including Kreuzberg, popular with Turkish immigrants. Despite this, the number of Turks there continued to grow until well into the 1980s, statistics show.
“It can be positive for integration to be surrounded by like-minded people” because it offers more support, said Ulrike Hamann, researcher at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Back in Essen, Ahmad Hmedi from the Syrian-German Association is convinced the Syrian community will continue to grow. He is advising his fellow countrymen to challenge evictions and points out that refugees who obtained asylum in 2015 still remain free to move.
“Others will come,” he said. “The city is still popular.”