racism germany asylum seekers
Schwaebisch Gmuend mayor, Richard Arnold, drew criticism for he was pictured laughing as he inspected the asylum seekers’ straw hats (Courtesy of Thomas Mayr/Gmuender Tagespost)

Authorities in a German town have quickly discontinued a controversial scheme said to have been designed to help asylum seekers integrate into the community in a row that it was racist and echoed colonial-era slavery.

Asylum seekers were paid €1.05 (90p) an hour as station porters to carry passenger luggage up a steep ladder installed while construction work was carried out at the station in the southern town of Schwaebisch Gmuend.

The nine migrants selected for the schemewore a uniform of a red T-shirt bearing the word "Service", blue trousers and straw hats. The majority of them were black.

The scheme was criticised almost as soon as it was launched.

"Nine predominantly dark-skinned men in red service shirts and jolly sunhats ready to carry the cases of predominantly white clients. For €1.05 an hour. Blacks as luggage coolies for whites - and in our country. How can that be?" wrote Stern magazine.

"Having refugees as bag carriers is a shameless exploitation of the people's situation," far-left Linke lawmaker Ulla Jelpke said. Jelpke called the practice "colonial" behaviour.

Further criticism was drawn by a picture of city mayor Richard Arnold laughing as he inspected a team of carriers, which was published by local newspaper Gmünder Tagespost.

A Facebook campaign to halt the service was launched and national rail operator Deutsche Bahn decided to replace the asylum seekers with local people.

"The railway cannot support these conditions," the railway said.

The town council defended the scheme, saying that the €1.05 wage was the maximum allowed under the law on asylum seekers.

"At a first glance, pictures of black people carrying white peoples' suitcases don't look good and conjures up images of neo-colonialism and racism, but this is not the case - the asylum seekers want to do this," a council spokesman said.

Bernd Sattler, a member of AK Asyl, a group that works with asylum-seekers told The Times, that criticism was misplaced.

"We need to find pragmatic solutions to the integration of asylum-seekers," he said.

"Projects such as carrying suitcases at the station allow them to have social contacts. It is difficult to organise in other ways.

"Through projects like this, the asylum-seekers get a boost to their self-esteem and can be perceived as equal colleagues."