You have to understand the soul of a country, and Germany’s soul has evolved : the country sees itself as a in-migration-country. That clock cannot be turned back.
These words from Mekonnen, an expert on migration and diversity in Germany, have stayed with me, as I wandered the streets of Berlin. For me, they indicate a fundamental shift in a country and society, which I knew as a child to be slow to embrace its status as an immigration country.
Growing up in the 1990s in Berlin, my parent’s Polish heritage still was fodder for unfriendly childhood teasing. Similarly, Germany in the 1990s experienced waves of right-wing protest in response to a refugee influx. The political response at the time was to restrict the right to asylum: if refugees hailed from "a safe country," or passed through a "safe third country" on the way to Germany, their claims to protection would not be recognized. The logic was that the refugees had access to safe countries en-route to Germany, and thus, their choice to seek protection in Germany was not a need-based one. Asylum claims dropped.
Those German laws also laid the foundations for today’s EU Dublin system. The EU Dublin regulation specifies that the first European country, through which a refugee passes, is generally responsible for processing their asylum claim, This law is based on the same logic as the German one: a refugees' passage through safe countries put their need for protection in the end destination in doubt. Under the Dublin regulation, EU countries can send refugees back to the port of first entry. This system causes the current crisis in the border states, such as Greece, and is now considered a woefully insufficient response to the current situation.
The Germany I experienced this summer has changed profoundly from the Germany of my childhood: when I talk to younger generations, they puzzled by my self-definition as a first generation German. In their mind, I am hardly a daughter of migrants: I am a German-Pole, and Poles aren’t migrants. They are European neighbors, whose children are well-integrated, fellow Europeans. Germany experienced a profound societal shift vis-à-vis who is considered the ‘in-group’ and the ‘out-group' in the last two decades.
In Berlin, this multi-cultural Zeitgeist manifests itself in a myriad of ways: the diversity in the streets; the colorful, migrant-owned businesses and the abundance of citizen engagement with regards to the refugees. Almost every Berlin district has at least one citizens’ initiative, through which the cities' residents try to address the immediate and long-term needs of refugees. This includes organizations such as Fluechtlinge Wilkommen (refugees welcome), in which Germans, who want to rent a space to refugees are matched with potential tenants in need. Many Germans organize a number of small events to facilitate a meeting between locals and newcomers. For example, while I was in Berlin, Cycling Lessons for Ladies taught female refugees how to ride a bike. The event was advertised in Arab and Pashto.
Many Germans opened their own doors (and hearts) to refugees: I dined with a young father, who took in a displaced Syrian youth, witnessing first-hand the experiences of Germans, who invited refugees into their families (another post forthcoming.)
Even cultural exhibits and public spaces were filled with positive messaging around migration: The German Historical Museum currently has an exhibition called Germany, a Country of Immigration, which traces the trends of in-migration in post-WWII Germany. The Berlin metro sported advertisements focusing on solidarity with refugees.
In short, every day, I was reminded of Germany’s Willkommenskultur- which translates into welcoming culture- a term Germans use to coin the current Zeitgeist.
Berlin, of course, tends to be more progressive and diverse than many other German cities; nonetheless, the shift appears to be more profound than a local phenomenon. Whether Germans agreed with Merkel’s management of the refugee crisis or not; whether they feared some economic and social backlash or not – most of the Germans, with whom I spoke in Berlin and beyond accepted that their country today is one, which will experience more immigration; that the current refugees need sheltering, and that Germany must find better solutions to manage the challenges attached to integration.
Tina Gazovicova, a Slovak human rights expert, who is currently working at the Office of the Representative of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration, described this situation as such:
Even with the cooling of the Open Door Sentiment, the attitude in Germany— in the media and in informal discussions— still differs from the rest of Europe. In Germany, it focuses on how to best manage the influx of refugees, not on whether Germany can and should accept these migrants and refugees. In much of the rest of Europe, the discussion focuses on stemming the influx
In short, the German sentiment remains in stark opposition to the sentiment in the other countries I visited: there, politicians largely focus on costly policies to deter refugee arrivals.
What then accounts for such an evolution, in which Germany became a refugee-friendly country?
Speaking to Mekonnen, and others, I concluded that mere diversity alone did not bring about this change. Instead, the current policies are the fruit of a decade or more of labor by engaged Germans. Mekonnen described to me how over the last fifteen years, a coalition of civil society lobbied the German government to change the laws so as to make Germany more attractive to migrants friendlier to refugees. This coalition included representatives from progressive groups, churches and from private enterprises. Through engagement, they changed the laws first on the state and then on the federal level.
Last year's legislative changes for example encompassed the lifting of the residence obligation for refugees, which required the asylum seeker to stay in assigned areas during the processing of their application; the provision of monetary support to refugees instead of food stamps, and the easing of the employment process for refugees. Previously, an employer needed to prove that no German or EU citizen applied for a job, for which they wanted to hire a refugee- now depending on the type of job and the length of the asylum seeker’s residence in Germany, these requirements were either significantly eased or lifted completely. Cumulatively, these policy developments changed Germany from a transit country to a destination country for refugees.
The coalition of three different forces lobbying for more progressive asylum laws is notable. While churches and progressives often engage around human rights issues, the addition of private enterprise amplified their political impact. In Germany, many industry leaders continue to lobby for more access to employment for refugees. The calculus is that Germany has a declining work force as baby boomers retire; and the industry knows that many refugees come with at least a high school degree and occupational skills. Many industry leaders thus see economic potential in the current refugee crisis.
This context is important for understanding Merkel’s political leadership on this issue: From abroad, she seems such a courageous figure. From on the ground, she seems more like a smart politician navigating competing pressures.
Unfortunately, in the last few weeks, these pressures include a growing concern among German voters with whether Merkel’s government managed the refugee crisis well.
In the last two weeks, Germany had a number of local elections, which propelled the right-wing, anti-Europe party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) into several state parliaments. Just last weekend, Merkel’s party suffered significant losses in the Berlin elections. The Left party, the right-wing AFD and the Liberals all gained in the polls. The Green and the Social Democrats remained relatively stable, though the Social Democrats remain weak.
Merkel in response to the election result conceded that she hadn’t prepared Germany sufficient to manage the sudden refugee influx – of note is that this concession only addresses how the open door policy was managed, not whether the open door policy was the correct one. She promised her country that her government will smooth the refugee integration process and will address security concerns. Merkel remains committed to an open Germany.
Much more notable in my mind is that Merkel conceded that Germany, under her leadership, relied too long on the aforementioned Dublin system. This reliance, she states, sheltered her and her country to be from the reality that the current migration waves represent a trend that that will continue in the foreseeable future and that require policy solutions. This admission is significant.
You wouldn’t know any of this, if you are just reading the foreign media: the elections led the media to already foretell the demise of Merkel, with sensational headlines like the one from Newsweek, “Will The European Union Survive Angela Merkel’s Political Demise?”
This concern is overblown: Berlin elections still are fundamentally about local issues, such as concern with better school; gentrification and local governance. Those social issues are not the strength of the Christian Democrats.
At most, the elections point to the demise the dominance of two parties in Germany’s plural democracy: with the main two parties (Christian Democrat and Social Democrat) weakening and the smaller parties strengthening, Germany will experience less stable coalitions. Simultaneously, this instability likely will also force more public debate on controversial policies. For now, on a national level, no party is strong enough to dislodge Merkel.
With Merkel at the helm, Germany will continue to work towards a well-managed refugee policy.