How Ger­m­ans chan­ged their minds on re­fu­gees, by Tho­mas Tuma.

Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BY THO­MAS TUMA

Last sum­mer, our aut­hor be­lie­ved Ger­ma­ny could hand­le an un­pre­ce­den­ted in­flux of re­fu­gees from the Midd­le East and Af­ri­ca. Li­ke ma­ny Ger­m­ans, he has chan­ged his mind.

Idon’t re­mem­ber the exact mo­ment when things chan­ged. It must ha­ve be­en a gra­du­al pro­cess. My chan­ge of mind on the re­fu­gee ques­ti­on hap­pe­n­ed, so to speak, bet­ween two train sta­ti­ons.

First, the­re was eu­pho­ria in Mu­nich last Sep­tem­ber, when throngs of my coun­try­men be­a­ring ted­dy be­ars and flowers chee­red re-fu­gees get­ting off their trains. It see­med oddly hys­te­ri­cal even then, li­ke a de­mons­tra­ti­on of im­pecca­ble con­sci­ence. Then, on New Ye­ar’s Eve, the­re ca­me vio­lence outs­ide Co­lo­gne’s cen­tral sta­ti­on per­pe­tra­ted against lo­cal wo­men by im­mi­grant men. Sin­ce then, not­hing has be­en the sa­me.

Yet Co­lo­gne was on­ly a cul­mi­na­ti­on. And it is still not cle­ar whe­ther the as­saults and sub­se­quent de­ba­te about what hap­pe­n­ed ha­ve ma­de the coun­try mo­re ma­tu­re and ho­nest — or just mo­re ra­di­ca­li­zed.

When An­ge­la Mer­kel an­noun­ced her open­door ap­proach to re­fu­gees in la­te Au­gust and pro­mi­sed that “we can do it,” I was wil­ling to fol­low her le­ad. Be­cau­se bro­ther­ly lo­ve should reach bey­ond yu­le­ti­de do­na­ti­ons; be­cau­se I be­lie­ve Ger­ma­ny’s past gi­ves us a his­to­ri­cal re­s­pon­si­bi­li­ty; be­cau­se ra­cism and xe­no­pho­bia seem so ab­surd in a glo­ba­li­zed world from which we so ob­vious­ly be­ne­fit.

But I ha­ve lost my faith in the idea that “we can do it.” And I am not alo­ne. Ac­cor­ding to the la­test ARD Deutsch­land­trend poll, 81 per­cent of Ger­m­ans now be­lie­ve we ha­ve lost con­trol. That so­me­thing is go­ing wrong that has less to do with the re­fu­gees than with our bot­ched po­li­cies.

When my lo­cal ci­ty go­vern­ment erec­ted the first con­tai­ner vil­la­ge for re­fu­gees in my neigh­borhood, the­re was much good will. But as the num­bers ra­pidly swel­led and the extent of the mass exo­dus be­ca­me cle­ar, our so­cie­ty be­gan to split. The schism re­ached in­to my own li­ving room. “The re­fu­gees are pul­ling us out of our warm, com­for­ta­ble co­coon,” I told my wi­fe. My wi­fe, who vol­un­te­ers for a re­fu­gee aid group, was skep­ti­cal. “And?” she as­ked. “Will that ma­ke in­te­gra­ting them any ea­sier?”

Ma­ny of us had ho­ped we’d on­ly get pre­mi­um re­fu­gees — Sy­rian aca­de­mics and their de­light­ful child­ren. We we­re nai­ve. It was main­ly sing­le young men that took up re­si­dence in our brand-new lo­cal shel­ter.

All the whi­le, our po­li­ti­ci­ans en­ga­ged in phan­tom de­ba­tes about re­fu­gee caps and con­tin­gents, the fu­ture of the Schen­gen Agree­ment on bor­der­less tra­vel, how to de­fi­ne a sa­fe coun­try of ori­gin. As if that had any be­a­ring on the un­cea­sing stream of mi­grants, for which de­mo­gra­pher Her­wig Birg fo­re­sees two sce­na­ri­os. In the best ca­se, so­me of the new­co­mers find work and pay ta­xes, off­set­ting a small per­cen­ta­ge of what this mass mi­gra­ti­on will cost us.

In the mo­re pes­si­mis­tic sce­na­rio, an eco­no­mi­cal­ly over­bur­de­ned Ger­ma­ny faces in­cre­a­sing do­mestic ten­si­ons as it lo­ses its so­ci­al and cul­tu­ral be­a­rings. “The reality will be so­mew­he­re in bet­ween and co­me with a drop in li­ving stan­dards eit­her way,” Birg says. “It will get mo­re un­plea­sant in Ger­ma­ny.”

Tho­se wel­co­m­ing cheers at Mu­nich train sta­ti­on mar­ked the end of an of­ten tor­tuous odys­sey. But they can on­ly mark the start of a pro­cess that will ta­ke ge­ne­ra­ti­ons and could go woeful­ly wrong du­ring the long, hard slog. Can we re­al­ly do it?

At Mu­nich train sta­ti­on, a re­fu­gee clings to a pho­to of An­ge­la Mer­kel.

A re­ti­red te­acher who gi­ves Germ­an­lan­gua­ge les­sons to re­fu­gees in my neigh­borhood tells me how the men in her class­room at first re­fu­sed to sit with the wo­men. She told them they could go right back ho­me if they didn’t ac­cept gen­der equa­li­ty. I ad­mi­re her cou­ra­ge. By now, her group has ad­jus­ted and is eager­ly learning. But she, li­ke ever­yo­ne, al­so knows dif­fe­rent sto­ries now: of the ho­mo­pho­bic, mi­so­gy­nist, tes­to­ste­ro­ne-dri­ven and of­ten an­ti-Se­mi­tic mob that has no in­ten­ti­on of in­te­gra­ting.

The pro­blems did not be­gin in Co­lo­gne, but ha­ve long be­en sup­pres­sed in the Ger­man de­ba­te. As Ger­man-Ira­ni­an so­cio­lo­gist Ar­min Nas­sehi told the Ber­lin dai­ly Ta­ges­zei­tung: “One si­de re­fu­sed to ac­cept that we’ve be­en an im­mi­gra­ti­on so­cie­ty for de­ca­des. The ot­her si­de pre­fer­red to igno­re the fact that im­mi­gra­ti­on can pro­du­ce pro­blems. And so we don’t ha­ve any cul­tu­re of dis­cour­se on im­mi­gra­ti­on.”

Ins­tead, Ger­m­ans ha­ve dis­co­ve­r­ed self­pro­tec­tion. Ab­sent a gun cul­tu­re, the na­ti­on is ge­aring up with bil­ly clubs, kni­ves, air pis­tols and pep­per spray. Re­fu­gees aren’t the rea­son for this. Ra­ther, it is the ero­ding trust in the pro­tec­tive po­wer of the sta­te. First co­mes the loss of con­trol, then the loss of trust. Can we still do it?

No, says Hans-Jür­gen Pa­pier, for­mer pre­si­dent of Ger­ma­ny’s Con­sti­tu­tio­nal Court, who in a re­cent in­ter­view with Han­dels­blatt be­mo­a­ned the“bla­tant failu­re” of the Ger­man sta­te. No, says a Tur­kish-Ger­man en­tre­pre­neur I ran in­to re­cent­ly. Li­ke ma­ny Ger­m­ans with im­mi­grant back­grounds, he ad­vi­sed tough lo­ve — to send the rif­fraff packing. I didn’t bo­ther men­tio­n­ing the Ge­ne­va Con­ven­ti­ons. To him, half-jo­kingly, Ger­m­ans vee­red bet­ween Mo­ther The­re­sa and Adolf Hit­ler, with litt­le in bet­ween.

Others, too, find us a litt­le odd the­se days. Ot­her li­be­ral de­mo­cra­cies such as Swe­den and Den­mark are al­re­a­dy shut­ting their bor­ders. Eas­tern Eu­ro­pean le­a­ders mock our nai­ve­té. Ot­her Eu­ro­pean neigh­bors ac­cu­se us of try­ing to force our own sen­se of moral recti­tu­de on them.

Ever­yw­he­re in Eu­ro­pe, the po­li­ti­cal forces of­fe­ring the sim­plest an­s­wers are gai­ning ground. That usual­ly me­ans the right — in Po­land, Hun­ga­ry, Fran­ce and Den­mark. “We’re do­ing ever­y­thing in our po­wer to ma­ke it un­attrac­tive to co­me to Den­mark,” that coun­try’s mi­nis­ter of mi­gra­ti­on said in Ja­nu­a­ry.

Far from gi­ving us such sim­ple an­s­wers, Ger­ma­ny’s po­li­ti­ci­ans aren’t gi­ving us any an­s­wers at all. Our de­ci­si­on ma­kers seem as de­eply un­cer­tain as they we­re du­ring the dar­kest mo­ments of the 2008 fi­nan­ci­al cri­sis.

Ob­vious­ly, the­re aren’t any ea­sy re­ci­pes. Ever­y­thing we’re ex­pe­ri­en­cing at this mo­ment is new. But words are no lon­ger enough. Sin­ce Co­lo­gne, a cho­rus of po­li­ti­ci­ans has cal­led for tougher laws and har­s­her crack­downs. But the­se em­pty phra­ses are less con­vin­cing than ever. I ha­ve be­co­me af­raid of a hy­per­ven­ti­la­ting go­vern­ment stuck bet­ween par­ty squab­bles and Eu­ro­pean di­s­cord, ac­com­plis­hing not­hing.

In No­vem­ber, af­ter cal­ling off a soc­cer match in Ha­no­ver amid fe­ars of a pos­si­ble ter­ror attack, In­te­ri­or Mi­nis­ter Tho­mas de Mai­ziè­re of­fe­red no de­tails, say­ing on­ly that “part of the an­s­wer would un­sett­le the po­pu­lace.” So it isn’t just we vo­ters who mi­s­trust po­li­ti­ci­ans; they mi­s­trust us mo­re than ever too. But we are neit­her stu­pid nor es­pe­cial­ly fra­gi­le. We can be trusted with reality.

Co­m­ing up with a re­al ac­tion plan for Ber­lin and Brus­sels should not be that dif­fi­cult. It would in­clu­de im­pro­ved con­trol of the Eu­ro­pean Uni­on’s ou­ter bor­ders, bet­ter ma­nage­ment of the asyl­um pro­cess, mo­re po­li­ce.

Re­cent­ly, ano­ther neigh­borhood in my ci­ty was plan­ning a new camp for 4,000 re­fu­gees. That sho­cked even the most pas­sio­na­te lo­cal de­fen­ders of Ger­ma­ny’s re­fu­gees-are­wel­co­me cul­tu­re. That would be 4,000 people who neit­her speak our lan­gua­ge nor un­der­stand our va­lues; 4,000 people who will need child­ca­re and schools that do not yet exist.

My wi­fe smi­led a vic­to­rious smi­le as I con­fes­sed the­se worries. She had war­ned me months ago. Sur­pri­sin­gly, sin­ce Co­lo­gne, she has be­co­me mo­re op­ti­mis­tic than I. “At least now we can dis­cuss the­se things open­ly,” she said. I, on the ot­her hand, ha­ve grown mo­re si­lent. Words are no lon­ger enough.

Our de­ci­si­on ma­kers seem as de­eply un­cer­tain as they we­re du­ring the 2008 fi­nan­ci­al cri­sis.

The Bal­kan rou­te is the main cor­ri­dor from the Midd­le East to Ger­ma­ny. He­re, a train brings re­fu­gees across Ser­bia.

Tho­mas Tu­ma is a de­pu­ty edi­tor in chief at Han­dels­blatt.

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