This article reflects my personal opinion.
Immigration. A word that lately lets emotions run high and has emerged as the key issue in arguably the two most important elections this year, the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election. The topic has found its way into the core of the public discourse in the Western World due to a large number of people who have been looking for refuge from war and dire social and economic crises in their homelands. Also in Germany, the difficult topic has taken control of big parts of the public debate, especially after a series of attacks carried out by men from a muslim migrant background has shocked the German society. The onslaughts have further exacerbated the situation in which the two loudest camps face each other unforgivingly. On one side are the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) and movements like “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” (Pegida), who warn of a foreign, violent domination of Western countries by an Islam that cannot be integrated into a free society. On the other side there are the so-called elites, governmental politicians and most parts of the established media, who largely deny a connection between immigration and crime and terrorism and stress the opportunities and advantages of migration for an ageing society. But a discussion just about whether refugees are advantageous for Germany or not is shallow, most of the time mainly characterised by ideology and not rationality and, quite frankly, egoistic.
In 2015, more than one million refugees were newly registered in Germany, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Due to the fact that the borders have not been controlled during this time, these numbers might be unreliable because of double- or non-registrations. Based on current asylum statistics, two-thirds of these refugees are male and more than 50 percent of them are below 25 years old. Most of them do not speak German when they enter the country and while there is not yet enough reliable data, one can expect these refugees to be predominantly without an education that would make them fit for the German labour market. Coming from war-ridden countries, a lot of them are traumatised and need psychological support. Those refugees who will be allowed to stay (more on that later) come from Muslim and, except for Syria, non-secular countries. It is absolutely clear that not all members of a religion can be lumped together and be described as generally backward and that many Muslims live their religion as a peaceful one. But one must be aware of the fact that an ideology, that posits that you burn in hell eternally if you do not worship the same imaginary friend as some Middle-Eastern authors from more than a thousand years ago, can easily be abused to radicalise uprooted people without perspective. Western countries did not develop mainly free and progressive societies because of Christianity, but because Christianity has been watered down do a large degree and is separated from the state. The background of oppressive and patriarchal societies, that to a wide extent project their hopes and dreams onto the afterlife, will complicate the successful integration into the German society for many Muslims. In combination with the lack of a meaningful economic participation for uprooted and traumatised people, this can lead to increasing threats of radicalisation and crime. There is no clear evidence that the large influx of refugees will benefit the German society, at least in the short-to-medium term. These social and economic difficulties would pose huge challenges for the German society even if its integration efforts would be impeccable and comprehensive. It can be scary knowing that they are not.
These are the fears that drive the likes of AfD and Pegida. So what is the “Alternative” that they are so eager to implement? The AfD acknowledges the right for asylum for the politically persecuted as granted by constitutional law. However, they stress that economic refugees have no right to come to Germany and that they should be repatriated as quickly as possible. Hence, it should be reassuring for them that this is already the current law in Germany (e.g., the refugee status acceptance rate for refugees from the Balkans is zero percent). While the Geneva Convention only protects war refugees, similar protection rights apply to people who will probably be persecuted because of their origin, sexuality or religion in their home country. This is regulated in the German asylum law, which in principal only takes into consideration persecution which is perpetrated by the state. However, refugee status or subsidiary protection is granted “out of justified fear of persecution” or to individuals who have “submitted plausible reasons to presume that they are at risk of serious injury in their country of origin”, respectively. Emergency situations like poverty, natural disasters or a lack of prospects do not entitle for protection. In practice, it is very hard to distiguish whether an individual has legally justified reasons for refugee protection or not. To be able to repatriate more refugees more quickly, members of the German government coalition want to declare more countries so-called “safe countries of origin” and make deals with them to receive refugees, e.g. Maghreb states like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. But when is a country safe enough? And in general, where do you draw the line between justified and unjustified fear of persecution? And how do you tell the difference in individual cases? Intuitively, why should refugees be protected from war and organised persecution but not from other deadly threats? For a party whose core issue is immigration, the AfD has proposed few new approaches to these problems.
Connected with the increase of safe countries of origin, another suggestion to reduce the number of refugees in Germany is to help and keep them in camps that are closer to their homelands, by supporting and striking deals with other countries that are seemingly culturally more similar to the refugees’ countries of origin. While in general a good approach, the problem with this is that often regimes are supported that themselves are suppressing minorities and dissidents. The refugee deal with Turkey has manoeuvred the EU into a dependency on a power-hungry leader that persecutes journalists, judges and academics and is by no means innocent with regard to the chaos in Syria and Iraq. German politicians have to ask themselves if this is a price worth paying for pushing the misery of the refugees out of sight and out of mind. And to be cynical, in failed states like Libia it is a tough question whether negotiations should be conducted with changing corrupt regimes or directly with the Islamic State. Additionally, it is highly doubtful if deals with unstable governments would even succeed in reducing the numbers of refugees arriving in Europe and, hence, in Germany.
So if refugees cannot be stopped from daring the dangerous flight to Europe in a humanitarian way, the EU should implement a system that registers them and sorts out those who are eligible for refuge in an as-safe-and-quickly-as-possible manner. It has to be changed that the thousands of people who drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea serve as a quietly accepted measure to reduce the refugee numbers. If the burden of controlling the borders and giving shelter to the refugees was shared by all member states, this system could work without too big of a load on any single country. However, this is utopian. While the southern countries of the EU have been asking for help to deal with refugees for years, now that some central and northern countries start to feel the pressure and ask for the same, it is too late. The European Union is all but falling apart and European solidarity has become a hollow phrase. If there is no working mechanism of distributing the refugees among all European countries, they will keep on trying to get to the ones where they expect the best chances and treatment, namely Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Consequently, in the short run, this basically leads to one option if Germany decides that it cannot bear the difficulties of taking in high numbers of refugees: its borders have to be closed. This would lead to a chain reaction with all countries to the South closing their borders as well (if they have not already done so), leaving the most exposed and already crisis-ridden Mediterranean countries Greece, Italy and Spain alone to deal with the problem. Ultimately this would result in more people suffering in insufficient camps, more instability in the already fragile EU and more people drowning in the sea, suffocating in overcrowded trucks and being shot in dreadful wars. And even then, the threat of terrorism and social conflicts in Germany might not even decrease given that the blame for lost Muslim lives might be shifted onto its government.
What should be done if Germany decides that closing its borders to refugees is not morally justifiable? First of all, it has to make sure that every refugee is identified and registered before entering the country. Second, asylum procedures have to be handled substantially quicker than it has been the case in the past. Not only does this give control to the authorities and allow for the best possible safety (in contrast to excessive mass data storage) but it also steals the thunder of the most scaremongering politicians. Economic refugees have to be repatriated in a humanitarian manner. This may seem harsh to some but is important for various reasons: Those who illegally come to Germany for economic reasons are not fit for the German labour market and hence will not be able to fulfil their exaggerated expectations and end up being disenchanted and left-behind. Furthermore, they occupy capacities that are currently desperately needed for those who had to flee persecution and war. Finally, accepting illegal immigrants sets the wrong incentives for others and further drains already struggling economies, aggravating the situation. Repatriating only works if there is a stable government in the country of origin to make a deal with. But if a country has no stable government this might be a sign that the refugees did not only flee because of economic reasons in the first place. Those who receive refugee status have to be integrated into the German society. This is a two-way street: It has to be absolutely clear to immigrants that Germany is a free society and does not tolerate any curtailment of the freedom of speech and religion, gender equality or sexual self-determination. The issue that punishment in the form of imprisonment might not be daunting enough for people who have fled war is one that cannot be easily solved if one is not willing to send criminals into near-certain death in their countries of origin and one that should be openly discussed. On the other hand, integration has to be facilitated by providing sufficient accommodation and education. Access to the labour market and recognition of qualifications has to be improved with pragmatic approaches. It will not be enough to say that “we can do it”, as Angela Merkel famously did, and then not provide enough means that enable the authorities to do it. And those who say that Germany does not have enough money to ensure a proper integration should be reminded of the future costs of a failed integration. The members of the German society who do currently pay a high cost for a high influx of refugees are the low-wage earners and the poor in general. They have to compete with the immigrants for work, space to live and the scarce ways out of their poverty. The well-educated often fail to acknowledge this when they wonder why there is so much xenophobia in the less-educated parts of society. A successful integration without growing social and racial distress will only work if there is a fair distribution of opportunity and income.
Additionally, in the long run, Germany and other Western countries should rethink their foreign and development policies (This is a topic for another day). Repatriating economic refugees can only be justified if their countries of origin have the perspective of becoming prosperous and equal economic partners to the developed world. And lessons have to be learnt from the fact that the conflicts in the Middle East and terrorism that people are fleeing have been and still are caused to a very large degree by the reckless foreign policy of the United States and their allies. In the meantime, stable countries that currently protect refugees close to their homelands have to be supported and other countries in the Arab world have to be prompted to help refugees instead of being provided with weapons. And even if it seems futile, it should not be given up to develop a European-wide approach to the refugee crisis that accepts the fact that it is happening and starts trying to manage it in a reasonable way. These efforts are important because in the end, only a network of nations will be able to help the vast number of refugees.
While the hysteric media at the moment exaggerates the threat of Islamist terrorism that is caused by the influx of Muslim refugees, it is very likely that high numbers of immigrants will force the German society to make sacrifices due to social and economic complications. However, the alternative is not to close the borders and everybody will stay at home where they supposedly belong. The alternative is that people who have been thrown into unspeakable suffering through no fault of their own and have nowhere to call home anymore will further suffer and many will die. It is natural to care more about the people and the things that are familiar than about strangers, and nobody can really care about every person on the planet. And it is true that high numbers of refugees threaten some people more than others, especially the low-skilled who have to compete with immigrants on the job market. But those who demand higher walls and tighter fences and stricter laws should call the things by their name: They do not want to make sacrifices and risk their way of life, even if it costs other human beings their lives. A country that is as rich as Germany should be able to help the people who were forced to leave their homes behind and share its wealth with them if it calmly considers the risks and chances and acts accordingly. Germany will not be able to give shelter to every refugee from Africa and the Arab world and has the right to clearly communicate that, but when looking at other countries’ load, one should expect Germany to still have capacities. And despite immediate costs and sacrifices, in the long run, if done right, it might even benefit from this unplanned immigration. Fear has always been a bad advisor, and fear will not get the German society through these troubled times.
Film: Hotel Rwanda, this short film about a Somalian refugee as an example for countless refugee stories captured on film, Children of Men (again), Persepolis
Reading: The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley has selected his Top 10 refugee’s stories
Written by Jonas