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The German scion who sees it as his duty to house refugees and young offenders

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Tobias Merckle, an heir to one of Germany’s largest fortunes, lives in prison. The 50-year-old’s modest two-room residence is above a joinery workshop at a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Stuttgart. He founded the institution to rehabilitate young offenders almost 20 years ago and still runs it, overseeing everything from cooking to carpentry to sanctioned cigarette breaks.

It is an unusual vocation for a scion of a wealthy dynasty. Although the precise value of the Merckles’ assets is undisclosed (they include more than a quarter of the Dax-listed HeidelbergCement and all of pharma company Phoenix), the family are multibillionaires, with the sale of drugmaker Ratiopharm alone fetching €3bn in 2010.

“My father was always clear that I should go into the business,” says Merckle in his heavy Swabian accent. “He would obviously have preferred that.” That future was derailed in the 1990s, after Merckle spent a year in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as part of his studies of social work with drug addicts. Frustrated at the imprisonment of people he felt could be rehabilitated, he decided to dedicate himself to reforming prison systems.

Back home, Merckle opened and seed-funded the first Seehaus, or “lake house”, in 2003 after reaching a deal with his native state of Baden-Württemberg, which for the first time in modern Germany allowed young offenders to serve prison terms in a non-governmental institution. With a sister institution near Leipzig in eastern Germany, the project has had roughly 250 youths — male, as there are very few females of that age in German jails — pass through its doors.

Those chosen from jails by Merckle’s organisation with the help of the prison system live on the leafy campus and its 17th-century manor, and receive on-site vocational training in woodwork, masonry, metallurgy or landscaping, as well as the chance to work on a small farm or a bakery. The inmates are housed in spacious flats, which they must keep clean, and are overseen by families who live in the same building to provide a semblance of structured life. There are no gates, but if inmates abscond and are caught, they are sent back to jail, forfeiting their Seehaus place.

Their daily regime, however, is hardly permissive. “We have to wake up at 5.30am twice a week and go jogging,” says one 21-year-old, who asked not be named. Television viewing is restricted to bi-weekly news programmes, and mobile phones are only allowed for four hours a week, for those who have accumulated the most privileges. “It’s hard to remain motivated,” says the young man, who has three job offers for when he is released. “But you learn many things here that you can take with you into the outside world.”

On Seehaus’s leafy campus, access to TV and mobile phones is strictly limited © Patrick Junker
Tobias Merckle © Patrick Junker

While some of the offenders come from Muslim families, and are encouraged to deepen their faith, there is a strong Christian ethos at the complex. Inmates are invited to say grace before meals, and much of the available literature is religious in nature.

The programme is not always successful. Some 30 per cent of inmates find they cannot comply with the rigid routine and return to jail. But 98 per cent of those who do complete a Seehaus programme have found a job, according to Merckle, and only a quarter have ended up behind bars once again, compared with almost 45 per cent of those released from regular prisons.

Merckle’s philanthropic projects have extended beyond the penal system. Five years ago, at the height of the refugee crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country to almost 1m migrants, a policy reflecting Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture. But he began to notice cracks in the system. A former student of social pedagogics at Lüneburg university, Merckle says he believes in some controls on immigration, but is critical of the lack of development opportunities available to those who arrive in Europe.

Those chosen from jails by Merckle’s organisation live on a leafy campus and receive on-site vocational training © Patrick Junker

He embarked on a campaign to build bespoke housing for refugees and asylum seekers in Germany. Frustrated by the sight of migrants living in converted shipping containers on industrial sites and being excluded from work, Merckle invested an undisclosed sum in Hoffnungshäuser, or houses of hope, where Germans and foreigners live side by side.

Among the first to move in was Alyaa Elkhudary, now 31, who fled Damascus in 2015 with her brother, leaving the rest of her family behind. “It was hard at the beginning. The situation was different; my immigration status was unclear,” says Elkhudary, who shared a flat in Leonberg, near Stuttgart, with German and Chilean women. “But we danced and we laughed together. With respect, with understanding, you can bridge the cultural divide.”

Matthias Seitz, who lives in and runs a Hoffnungshäus © Patrick Junker
Alyaa Elkhudary, 31, who fled Damascus in 2015 and now lives in a ‘Hoffnungshäus’ © Patrick Junker

Rental agreements at the Hoffnungshäuser are unlimited, meaning refugees can stay as long as they like until they are ready to move out. That can prove difficult, even for those who have found employment. On top of the general housing shortage in Baden-Württemberg, “we still have discrimination on the housing market”, says Matthias Seitz, who lives in the Leonberg complex with his wife Cathrin. The couple manage the building and its projects, which include language classes, especially for young mothers; help navigating German bureaucracy, healthcare and education; and employment schemes.

When the Leonberg building opened in 2016, roughly 80 per cent of refugee residents were unemployed; today just 11 per cent are. Many work in the car industry — Daimler is just down the road — as well as hospitality and gardening.

The focus of the Hoffnungshäuser, however, is on broader integration into society, and organisers try to avoid housing people of the same ethnicity in the same flats, preferring to mix religions and cultures. “Maybe you will live with someone with whom you have [had] an historical conflict,” says Seitz. “Regular interaction is incredibly valuable — you only get that when you live together.” As well as meeting each other casually every day, residents — there are 80 in Leonberg, half of whom are locals — meet once a month to share their experiences.

The Seehaus complex in Leonberg © Patrick Junker

“These evenings really help us to understand the system here in Germany,” says Elkhudary, who has found work co-ordinating interpreters for the local authorities. “Those from around here taught us about things like Kehrwoche [a cleaning rota system integral to Swabian culture] or how to divide the recycling.”

Merckle, a devout Christian, says such schemes are about more than just charity. “Integration will be a part of Germany, otherwise we won’t have enough people [to fill jobs] here,” he says. Rather than letting people languish until their immigration status is settled, it would be “much better if we taught them German and a trade from the first day”. Even if those who have benefited from the Hoffnungshäuser are eventually deported they can take the skills they gained back to their home countries, Merckle says.

A resident of Seehaus, where young offenders can access vocational training © Patrick Junker

The idea is catching on. Merckle’s foundation, which has commissioned a local architect to design homes that can be rapidly and cheaply built, runs 15 houses across six locations in Baden-Württemberg and is expanding to 27 houses with 180 flats in total, partly funded by crowdsourcing campaigns.

Merckle does not share the views of those rich Germans who have criticised the accumulation of wealth and is at peace with the country’s social market economy. He will not disclose how much he spends on his philanthropic projects, but he sees his work as symbiotic with the values that drove his Lutheran family to build successful businesses in the first place. “Germany’s basic law says property entails obligations,” he says. “It’s very important to have that mindset. If I am entrusted with something, I have to be a good steward of it.”

Merckle’s father Adolf killed himself in 2009 after losing money in the financial crisis, leaving his heirs to restructure the family fortune. Publicity, Merckle says, is “something that we as a family never searched for”, although as part of his informal campaign to convince others to share their wealth, he is forced to speak out about the imperative for wealthy Germans to do more with their money.

But he will continue to orchestrate such efforts from his home at a correctional facility. “I can’t live somewhere else — I have to lead by example,” he says. “I have a life-long sentence.”

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment



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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park

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Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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