Just over a week ago Berlin commemorated 25 years of reunification. However, amidst the celebrations, Germany faces the biggest challenge since the fall of the Berlin wall: the refugee crisis. Whilst Frau Merkel insists that, just as Germany successfully handled the immense task of reunification, it is now suited to absorb and integrate large numbers of refugees, a different story seems to be emerging from overstretched local authorities and over-crowded refugee centres. The initial euphoria that greeted the ‘open door’ policy has quickly turned to anger, and it has been argued that Merkel is dividing Germany due to her transformation from a rational and deliberate decision maker to one who appears to be driven by empathy and idealism, thus forgetting the limits of reality.
Merkel’s refugee policy was first met with elation, as Germany showed a ‘beautiful and friendly face’ to the world. Many countries vigorously applauded this new image. ‘Germany’s road to redemption shines amid Europe’s refugee debate,’ was the headline on a Washington Post article, whilst The Economist cited her as a favourite to win a Nobel peace prize. We have all seen the harrowing images of refugees fleeing their war torn homelands and so Merkel’s gesture was a moral one, an expression of humanity which has allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to cross the border into safety.
For these reasons you can imagine my shock when, while studying in Mannheim – a German industrial city which currently sees hundreds of refugees pass through it each day, via allocated trains and buses – I find that the German people I talk to, both old and young, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the ‘open door’ policy. After all, what sort of sympathetic person would condemn a policy which seeks to help refugees, most of whom have been uprooted from their homes and forced to take a traumatic journey, with children in tow, through the Balkans and into Germany? What kind of country, or people, would refuse to welcome them with a friendly face; would choose to turn them away?
Chancellor Merkel believes that such a country, a Germany that denies refuge, ‘is not my country’. But perhaps the world cannot so easily be divided into do-gooders, willing to accommodate, and xenophobes, who turn their back. Perhaps, instead, the refugee crisis comes down to the age old problem of the politics of right and the politics of good. There needs to be a balance between humanity and reality because in the middle of the two extremes the majority of Germans require answers to their legitimate questions such as ‘How many refugees are coming next year?’ and ‘Will Germany be able to cope?’.
The reality is that Germany’s resources, at least in the short run, are being overstretched. Merkel’s declaration of ‘Wir schaffen es’ (‘we can do it’) was initially met with euphoria, as tens of thousands of volunteers clamoured to join the welcome parties in Berlin and Munich. However, a lot has changed in a month and as a result of overcrowded refugee centres, overworked police officers and overstretched local authorities, both German citizens and refugees alike are becoming restless. Arson attacks on refugee centres continue on a daily basis whilst clashes between residents of the shelters abound due to overcrowding and frustration.
An article from Der Speigel, a widely read German newspaper suggests that Merkel’s refugee policy has caused a divided Germany. It argues that Merkel places too much emphasis on humanity and in doing so she ‘has lost all sense of proportion’. Clearly anticipating that the rest of the EU would come to her aid, Merkel has been left in the lurch and it appears she underestimated just how many people would wish to seek refuge within the German border. The ‘welcome culture’ that saw thousands of Germans greet refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in September has all but evaporated. A poll published two days ago by the Emnid Institute showed that 49 per cent of Germans now think Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy is wrong; 39 per cent approve. At the start of the crisis, the figures were the other way around.
Although Merkel appears to be driven by humanity rather than reality when it comes to the refugee crisis, her act of altruism should not be viewed in wholly a negative light. In Europe we have a duty to protect the refugees, as the Chancellor herself emphasised: ‘these people are running for their lives’: giving them help is our ‘damned duty’. The situation is becoming too much, too quickly for Germany to cope with, and this is compounded by the lack of a domestic policy within the European Union. While Merkel declared that Germany’s right to asylum has no upper limit and train stations in Vienna filled up, Hungary was moving to build a razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia. Germany are taking in 10,000 refugees every day, the same amount the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated Britain would take over a five year period.
The full ramifications across the European Union member states as a result of the refugee crisis are as yet still emerging. Perhaps we may hope that altruism is infectious; maybe Germany have led the way in terms of a moral stance within the EU. This may lead to fewer European countries adopting a NIMBY stance and turning their backs as refugees drown in the Mediterranean. What is clear is that despite Angela Merkel’s best intentions Germany is finding it difficult to accommodate the thousands of refugees crossing the border every day, they cannot handle the crisis alone. Just as Germany celebrated 25 years of reunification in Berlin, so there needs to be a reunification of the European Union in order to allow humanity to become a reality.