Wel­com­ing refugees ‘may have ush­ered in Merkel’s fi­nal act’

The Gulf Today - - MIDDLE EAST -

BER­LIN: Open­ing Ger­many’s doors to more than a mil­lion refugees may come to deine Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s legacy, a land­mark mo­ment in her ca­reer that sparked a back­lash which could has­ten her po­lit­i­cal exit.

It was “the de­ci­sion of her life,” weekly Die Zeit judged re­cently, ahead of a vote on Fri­day that will crown a new head of the cen­tre-right Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU) party Merkel has led since 2000.

Late sum­mer 2015 saw hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees at­tempt to reach Europe in of­ten ap­palling con­di­tions — prompt­ing Merkel to wel­come those who found them­selves stuck in Hun­gary.

Af­ter com­plet­ing the jour­ney to the Aus­trian-ger­man border by coach or train or even on foot, many were wel­comed by Ger­mans with bou­quets of low­ers, food and other sup­plies.

Syr­i­ans and Iraqis lee­ing conlict in the Mid­dle East dubbed the chan­cel­lor “Mama Merkel,” the com­pas­sion­ate Euro­pean who had of­fered them shel­ter — of­ten in req­ui­si­tioned gym halls or dis­used bar­racks.

The nick­name is “just a joke, it over-sim­pli­fies things,” says Rami Ri­hawi, a 22-year-old Syr­ian from Aleppo who ar­rived in Ber­lin in late 2015, spend­ing seven months liv­ing with 300 other peo­ple in a gym.

“But she will go down in his­tory” for the choices she made back then, he pre­dicted.

Ri­hawi met Merkel in 2017 when she vis­ited a train­ing cen­tre for young com­puter pro­gram­mers where he was study­ing, be­fore he was hired as a soft­ware de­vel­oper at a start-up.

“We can do it!” — the phrase Merkel re­peat­edly used back then to re­as­sure her fel­low cit­i­zens they were up to the mam­moth in­te­gra­tion chal­lenge — has since dis­ap­peared from her lex­i­con, af­ter be­com­ing a weapon lung at her by po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Ger­mans’ ini­tial en­thu­si­asm and open­ness quickly gave way to doubt over the mass ar­rivals, es­pe­cially in east­ern states al­ready ag­grieved by their eco­nomic dis­ad­van­tages com­pared to the wealth­ier west. At rou­tine events or on the cam­paign trail, Merkel was met with masses of peo­ple whistling and heck­ling.

“Re­sign!” a crowd in Dres­den chanted on Ger­many Unity Day in 2016.

The CDU’S tra­di­tional Bavar­ian al­lies — the more con­ser­va­tive CSU — have in­sisted on an­nual quo­tas for the num­ber of mi­grants al­lowed into the coun­try.

Merkel long re­sisted such calls be­fore in­ally giv­ing in, in all but name.

Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans quickly passed tougher asy­lum laws that con­trib­uted to a sharp re­duc­tion in the num­ber of new re­quests, from a peak of 750,000 in 2016 to 158,000 be­tween Jan­uary and Oc­to­ber this year.

And end­less calls to be tougher about de­port­ing re­jected asy­lum seek­ers have seen char­ter lights take Afghans back to Kabul.

Some politi­cians have even urged that peo­ple should be re­turned to parts of Syria.

With mi­gra­tion dom­i­nat­ing the air­waves, the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AFD) party be­gan notch­ing up elec­toral wins af­ter years of stag­na­tion.

It has be­come the strong­est party in cer­tain re­gions, win­ning 92 seats in the Bun­destag (lower house) 2017 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, promis­ing to “hunt” Merkel.

Such a ma­jor pres­ence for the far­right in par­lia­ment has not been seen in Ger­many since 1945, as the coun­try’s strong mem­ory of the Nazi past re­stricted xeno­pho­bia’s ap­peal.

Mean­while, the CDU’S record low in 2017 prompted the party’s con­ser­va­tive wing, which had al­ways bri­dled at Merkel’s cen­trist lead­er­ship, to turn up the vol­ume on its com­plaints.

File / Agence France-presse

A refugee holds a pic­ture of An­gela Merkel in Mu­nich.

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