By Basti Keil, freelance writer from Germany and future student at Leiden University.
“Refugee” has just been voted the Word of the year 2015 in Germany while almost simultaneously Angela Merkel has been voted Person of the year by TIME Magazine. (1)(2)The gym next to my old high school has been transformed into a humanitarian facility while all of Germany discussed the refugee crisis of 2015. Let us examine what distinguished this year from the previous years regarding refugees and what role Angela Merkel and the EU, the German mainstream media and the war in the Middle East play in the refugee crisis.
There were standing ovations and great applause after German chancellor Angela Merkel finished her yearly review at the party day of the Christian-democratic Union (CDU). The CDU is led by Merkel since 2000 and enjoys the majority of seats in the German parliament. The chancellor has not received overwhelming support throughout 2015, a year in which the perhaps most powerful woman of the world has been attacked from all sides for her policy regarding the increasing influx of refugees in Germany. Critique has come from the German people, EU leaders and even her closest allies.
There has been an increasing amount of demonstrations against her policies, of which some have escalated into violence.(2.1) The chancellor kept repeating in an Obama-like manner: “We can do it!” (3) The policy implemented by Merkel was basically an open border policy: the number of refugees Germany can take in will not be limited and there is no active attempt to stop the flow of people coming in. (4) As a result, many refugees have targeted Germany as their final destination in Europe. Around 1 million refugees are estimated to have arrived in 2015, although it is difficult to give accurate numbers (5).
The chancellor’s stance seems just, but it has proven itself logistically difficult at the local level. Critique therefore not only comes from the right side of the political spectrum, as is often displayed in the media, but also from local organizers and other affected people who simply feel overwhelmed. (6) Merkel’s policy has also raised resistance within her own government. In Munich she has been humiliated in public by Horst Seehofer, president of the CDU’s sister party CSU and state premier of Bavaria, who demands an upper intake limit. (7) Merkel’s policy is said to be short-sighted and not planned out well. With her strong standing she has presented herself as a savior, while leaving German communities overburdened with the countless logistical and organizational problems. Her policy, critics claim, is politically hypocritical and amoral if fully thought through. (8)
The European Union (EU) seeks to organize the flow of refugees and divide the burden fairly amongst EU countries via the Dublin system (9) – in theory at least. In reality the situation is messy and there is no consensus within the EU how the refugee problem should be handled. So far, the system has failed to distribute refugees fairly, because national interests prevail the organizational attempts of the EU. The problem starts with the counting procedure: According to the EU statistics agency Eurostat, around 942.000 refugees have claimed asylum in the EU in 2015, including Germany. German officials, however, claim over 1 million refugees have been counted by the German “EASY” counting system – in Germany alone that is. (9.1) The German office for migration (BAMF) has also issued that Germany will not seek to distribute Syrian refugees according to the Dublin procedure but handle the distribution themselves. (9.2)
While Germany seems to build up an intake monopoly, other EU states refuse to accept an amount refugees that could be considered fair in relation to the state’s size and economic strength. France, for example, announced that it would take in 24.000 asylum seekers in 2015, which is a relatively small amount compared to the number Germany is expected to take in (9.3) The political perspectives on refugees vary dramatically within the EU. Germany’s neighbor Hungary, for example, has built a fence to keep the incoming people away. (10)
Economically weakened Greece is often the first point of arrival and not able to cope with the situation at all, providing virtually no facilities (11). On the route through Bulgaria, refugees often seem to be welcomed with violence. (12) As during the Greek financial crisis in early 2015, Merkel has risen to become the dominant European leader throughout the refugee crisis. Her dominance is so strong within Europe that the image of Nazi Germany flashed back into some European minds, as media reports suggest (13). Although she remains the dominant voice when it comes to EU decision making, Merkel has been harshly criticized from European leaders for her policy. (14)
The leaders of other EU member states do not agree with her way of handling the crisis and how she has displayed European openness for refugees. Especially eastern European countries resist to follow obligations made by the EU. (14.1) Meanwhile, the formation of what they call a “Coalition of the willing” is being discussed by a small number of EU member states and Turkey. (14.2) In essence the EU can be divided into three categories: resisting states who do not want to have anything to do with the refugee crisis (i.e.: Poland, Hungary), passive states who are willing to do what the EU requests of them (i.e. France and Italy) and “willing” states who seek to do more than EU regulations suggest (i.e. Germany and Sweden). (14.3) Given this division, it is hard to imagine an EU resolution that every member state will agree to.
One argument often coined in the refugee discussion is that a large part of refugees are so called “economic refugees” (in German: Wirtschaftsflüchtling) (15), a politically denouncing term meaning refugees are only coming to Europe or Germany to have better economic opportunities. The term itself is what Harry Frankfurt would consider “Bullshit”. (16) First of all, the refugees that are being discussed in this context are defined as such according to the UN Refugee Convention (17). It is most certainly true for refugees coming from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan that they are people fleeing a war zone and their main drive is survival. Secondly, it is obviously true that refugees are seeking more opportunity and wealth in Germany, as any human being would. Economic migration on the other hand is a vaguely defined term itself (18).
In essence the difference is that economic migrants have a planned choice while refugees fleeing a war zone do not. Generally, most people in Germany are very open towards helping refugees. They do, however, have a problem with economic migrants who do not come from an unstable state like Syria, and who have used the chaos of the moment to join the flow of refugees. According to media reports, the number of people coming from North African countries, namely Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has increased dramatically over the last few months of 2015.. Many of these migrants have destroyed their passport and try to get into Germany as Syrian refugees. (18.1) Since they cannot be identified, they are neither being granted asylum nor are they being accepted back by their home states, which leads them into a legal grey-zone (18.2)
The sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne have raised international outrage. Even CNN keeps us up to date on the number of refugees that have been involved in what is described as groups of men forming circles around German women, assaulting them, stealing from them, sometimes even raping them. (18.3) These scenes seem taken straight from a zombie movie and could not hold more emotional charge. However, as far as police reports go by now, none of the men involved were actual refugees fleeing a war zone. All accused subjects identified so far have been part of the North African minority described above. (18.4)
Of course not all North Africans that came with the refugee influx are violent, but there certainly seems to be a minority that is placed in such hopeless conditions that they have formed criminal groups. On the other hand, there have been numerous protests by Syrian refugees against sexism and violence against women in the weeks after the assaults. (18.5) It is the responsibility of the political regime now to separate those who come in peace from those who do not. The potential rise of these groups was predictable, I would argue, and could have been prevented in the first place.
The German mainstream media essentially show two different faces: on the one hand they appeal to the tolerance of the German people and call for a warm welcome of refugees. Right wing resistance movements such as PEGiDA are condemned, as are critical parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany). In many cases connections between this uprising resistance and Germany’s Nazi past are drawn and popular resistance is considered a threat to German society and democracy. (19) The problem with this kind of reportage is that there is little space for rational criticism of the open border policy that is followed by the German government. The image displayed, especially by the boulevard press, basically leaves two choices: you are either tolerant and progressive or a right wing fascist.
On the other hand, the media fuel suspicion towards refugees and alarm the public of social instabilities created by the refugee influx. There are various connections drawn between terrorism and the refugee crisis, creating the image that the crowds of refugees coming to Europe are really a major security risk. There are also claims that ISIS fighters are probably amongst them. (20) Another issue that is heavily debated is what influence the Muslim heritage of the majority of the refugees may have on German society. (21) However, these debates are mainly a waste of time and a distraction of what really should be debated. There is no clear answer and what’s more, a clear answer can never be found.
These questions have been asked countless times throughout history, appearing in different cultures with claims on different religions. In the end they lead nowhere but to frustrations on both sides. These debates fuel the paranoia and prejudices of the many that feel that their opinion is not heard at all and it is one reason movements like PEDGIDA and the AfD have growing support in the first place. (22) It also makes every Muslim feel his belief is a justified subject of discussion and he may be potentially guilty of something. Overall, the German media landscape has not necessarily protected the German government and newspapers have at times been very critical of Merkel’s policy. In the end the mainstream media’s reportage is very narrow minded and the medial consent manufactures rather irrelevant discussions. This distracts people from looking at the true source of the crisis, which lies of course much deeper. Instead, only new problems are presented, always leaving the public in a reactionary position.
One crucial factor pushing refugees to Europe in 2015 has been the escalation of the war in Syria. Around one third of total number of asylum seekers last year came from Syria and the number has risen towards the end of the year. (23) This article will not explain the conflict Syria, for it is a complicated conflict. One factor that is connected to the increasing flow of refugees is the rise of ISIS, the Sunni extremist organization that has been dominating our news last year. ISIS seeks to create Caliphate with the Sharia as law. The circumstances for ISIS to grow and expand have been created by the West’s interference in the Middle East (24).
Although Saudi Arabia is officially distancing itself from ISIS and terrorist activities, ISIS gets its ideological support from the Sunni kingdom, which also happens to have Sharia rule. It also receives financial and weaponry supply from wealthy Saudis. (25) While obviously fueling the conflict in Syria, Saudi Arabia has refused to accept any refugees at all, just as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain (26). Lebanon and Turkey combined on the other hand have accepted 3 million refugees. (27) Obviously, there are a lot more national and multinational interests involved in the Syria conflict. Iran and Russia are the most dominant supporters of the Assad Regime, which has committed brutal atrocities against its own population. These include the denial of food and medicinal care and chemical bombs against civilian targets in opposition-held territory (27.1) (28) The West, Wiki-leaks founder Assange claims, has a long-term agenda of overthrowing this regime, while at the same time supposedly fighting ISIS. (29) Saudi Arabia is an interesting case for us, since European powers also happen to enjoy very good trade relationships with the Sunni kingdom. The EU continues to be the largest weapon exporter to Saudi Arabia. (30) It is therefore no coincidence that we see ISIS fighters with German weapons on TV. (31)
What can we expect for 2016? The events of Cologne have been an unpleasant surprise right in the beginning of the year and created a significant amount of hatred and resentment against migrants and refugees. As the division of the country is progressing, promoted by media that spread a combination of guilt and fear, it is essential that everyone does one’s best to see through the fog. For this task, we should not rely solely on media reports, but also involve alternative research sources in our opinion forming process. The refugee crisis is not one single event in history. It is one observable phenomena of a chain of events that really has no distinct beginning or end. Therefore, we cannot discuss it as a distinct unit. The number of refugees is expected rise in the next years (32).
In the short-term it will be important to find agreement within the EU that recognizes national interests of the affected states as well as humanitarian needs of the people. In the long-term, there will be no other solution but to step out of our reactionary position and actively start regulating the military industrial complex that keeps expanding its power and wealth on bloody soil. (33) The wars in the Middle East may be domestic to some extent, but in essence they are proxy wars of foreign powers, including powers coming from EU member states. As students of Europe and the world, we need to understand the connection between the national and multinational interests that continue to shape the wars that created the refugee crisis in the first place.
By Sebastian Keil