Let them in now!

| September 9, 2015

A positive image of Germany dominates the media as desperate Syrian asylum seekers are streaming into the country. Antje Missbach says while  Germany is congratulating itself on its newly adopted kind-heartedness, the next weeks and months will show whether the friendly receptions on the train stations will persist.

Germany’s decision to allow Syrian asylum seekers to travel from Budapest to Munich has been praised worldwide. During the first weekend in September 2015 about 16,000 asylum seekers arrived in Munich within the first 48 hours of the “open border” gesture, thereby suspending the Dublin Regulation for just a few days. Although this number of refugees is more than Australia accepts in an entire year under its humanitarian immigration program, given that there are more than 60 million displaced people worldwide, including more than 3 million displaced Syrians, it seems like just a drop in the ocean.

Emergency acceptance spots in Munich soon ran out and newly arrived asylum seekers were promptly redirected to other German cities, such as Frankfurt and Hamburg, where they were cheerfully welcomed by German volunteers and helpers. These heart-warming pictures tempt the viewer to forget all the ugly demonstrations by neo-Nazis and members of xenophobic groups such as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) earlier this year, as well as more than 150 racist attacks in Germany in the first half of 2015 alone. The positive image of Germany dominates the media today – not the one in which asylum seeker homes were set on fire in the dark of the night, as happened in Rottenburg on the 7 September2015, injuring at least five people, two of whom had to jump out of a window to save their lives.

The photos and video clips about happy receptions in train stations do not mention that it was the German government that pushed so hard for adopting the Dublin Convention in the early 1990s, which ruled that every asylum seeker has to apply for asylum in the first country he or she enters within the EU zone. Thereby it ensured that fewer people could apply for protection in Germany, whose safe and sound position in central Europe meant that the largest contingents of asylum seekers had to be dealt with by Italy and Greece, despite their ongoing economic crises. It must be stressed that Germany is not interested in getting rid of the Dublin Regulation, despite its temporary suspension.

The present gesture of Mother Merkel, as the German Chancellor is often referred to, enhances Germany’s image as the saviour of the Syrians by pointing out to the cold-heartedness of its Eastern European neighbours, making even the grumpiest German look good. As the richest country in the EU, Germany has a moral obligation to accept and accommodate more asylum seekers and refugee than other EU countries. Moreover, it must do so quickly, before the end of summer; otherwise more people could die along the land routes than already have perished in the “Mediterranean cemetery”.

Hence, Germany now has to show not just its ability in crisis management but also its ability to formulate a more stringent mid-term policy for asylum seekers, whose need for safe places and protection will not decrease in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan may even escalate further and push more people away from their homes. Every second Syrian of the 500,000 currently living in Jordan is considering making an attempt to reach Europe. Although the German Foreign Ministry is sending money to stabilise the situation in the refugee camps in countries bordering those three war-torn countries, many still will be tempted to leave.

In a late-night meeting of the ruling coalition in Berlin on 6 September 2015, Merkel’s government promised €6 billion to provide accommodation and basic supplies for new asylum seekers, including 150,000 humane and winter-proof lodging places. This is likely to be rather inadequate, given that the Ministry of the Interior announced that by the end of the year Germany will probably see up to 800,000 displaced people coming into its territory. Although a number of observers challenge this estimate, even if it turns out to be accurate, Germany, with its population of about 80.6 million people, has no reason to panic about so-called Überfremdung (being swamped by foreigners).

Meanwhile the bargaining with other EU members continues, although some countries such as France and the UK are now stepping forward with promises to accept a couple of thousand. Germany should take in the greatest number and allow their integration as quickly as possible by opening up access to the labour market and education. This would be a truly forward-looking approach, bearing in mind Germany’s shrinking population and its potential demographic impact on society. However, it seems that this has not yet filtered through to many politicians in Germany, as they prefer to hire more staff for the faster processing of asylum seeker applications, thus also speeding up the deportation process. People from the Western Balkans will be the first to be sent back, as Kosovo and Macedonia have recently been declared safe countries, making it difficult for asylum seekers from those countries to be recognised as refugees in Germany.

With an old anti-Nazi song from the German punk band “Die Ärzte” (The Doctors) back in the top of the charts, which makes very strong statements in support for the refugees and against right-wing extremists, the real litmus test for Germany’s asylum seeker and refugee policy is yet to come. The next weeks and months will show whether the friendly receptions on the train stations will persist. Given the widespread toleration of right-wing extremism by German politicians, there is a justified fear that Germany will show its ugly xenophobic face, as it did in the early 1990s when asylum applications last peaked. Will ordinary Germans stand cheering in front of the burning homes of asylum seekers while people inside fight for their lives, as they did in Lichtenhagen on 22–24 August 1992? Or will large numbers of Germans finally speak out against racism and chauvinism and accept refugees into their society?

Antje Missbach
Antje Missbach is McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She studied and taught at Humboldt University, Berlin, and in Heidelberg.

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