With the Neo Nazi marches and terrorism in Charlottesville still fresh in memory, I am reflecting on another city, where the extreme-right regularly march: Dresden, which was my first major stop after Berlin. Dresden is situated in the heartland of Sachsen, the wealthiest of the former East German state. Recently, the city rose to fame for weekly demonstrations by a German nationalist, anti-Islam, far-right political movement: the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West ( PEGIDA). During the height of the refugee crisis, PEGIDA drew a considerable following in the Sachsen, including a Neo Nazi following. A genuine desire to understand how locals felt about the resurgent homegrown extreme right movement in their midst inspired my visit.
Biking to Dresden, I biked through three former East German states, Brandenburg, Sachsen Anhalt and of course Sachsen. The towns I passed seemed quiet and forlorn; the population seemed older and skeptical at first interaction, as if guarded in the face of an outsider. Many were genuinely puzzled why a young woman would bike through their towns. The infrastructure was fabulous, testament to Germany’s post-unification investment in the East.
I was curious about the marked difference in attitude towards migration and diversity between the East and West German states. In the last elections, the German’s right-wing, anti-immigration party, Alternative für Deutschland, garnered impressive gains in the terrain of the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR): 24% of the vote in Sachsen-Anhalt, 21% in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, significantly higher than in Western states, where it ranges from 5,5% (Bremen) to 15% (Baden-Württemberg). The former Eastern states also sport higher rates of racial violence. Though only 21% of Germans live in the former GDR, over half of right wing and xenophobic attacks occur there, often in broad daylight. Last year, in Sachsen-Anhalt for example, victim support organizations for right wing violence reported right-wing 265 attacks affecting 401 victims, including 45 refugee children. Sachsen-Anhalt only hosts 2% of Germany’s refugee population.
These differences between East and West are even more significant when one accounts for the small numbers of refugees housed in the former DDR. The distribution of refugees across Germany is determined by the Königsteiner Schlüssel calculus, which distributes the refugees to federal states according to their tax income and population. Consequently, East German states only take in about 16% of refugees. Sachsen, the wealthiest East German state, takes in 5% of all refugees.
How could such small numbers inspire such virulent opposition? Analysts often point to historic differences between former East Germany and its democratic Western counterpart. For one, there is a different migration history. Another reason is the different approach to the Holocaust. Some cite economic reasons, but youth unemployment rates in the East have been declining faster than in the West. The Eastern economy appears robust, which discredits it as a driver of right wing populism.
Differences in migration history
Differences in approaches to the Holocaust.
Which one of these factors most resonate with people, I wondered?
The polarization of the differences was notable in Dresden. I observed men casually walking along the streets sporting shirts celebrating Hitler’s legacy. It wasn’t their numbers, which jolted me, but the ease with which they showed of their ideology: nobody seemed to bat an eye. When I asked my conversation partners, there was an uncomfortable chuckle and a throw away phrase, “that’s normal here.” I learned of a German term Nipster, referring to Neo Nazis, who have modernized their wardrobe to mimic the hipster look. The normalcy of Nazi symbols were discomforting and disorienting.
When I asked locals about the roots of the strong extreme rights culture, locals focused on the early 1990s: they described a disorienting loss of civic structures in unified Germany. Neo-Nazis were the first to organize in this vacuum. The extreme right thus offered some stability and community. People talked about how the local and federal intelligence failed to take the right-wing threat seriously.
Germany has both federal and state bureaus focused on protecting democracy, called Verfassungsschutz (which translated to protection of the constitution). They gather intelligence on threats concerning ‘the democratic order, the existence and security of the federation or one of its states, and the peaceful coexistence of peoples.’ However, they were slow to respond to organizations, such as The National Socialist Underground, a far-right German terrorist group responsible for a series of murders of immigrants.
The counter movement is also visible in Dresden. In PEGIDA’s heyday, the counter-demonstrations drew masses that dwarfed PEGIDA's numbers. Now, the counter-marches are much smaller. People said that direct confrontation did not appear to be the most productive strategy for change. Instead, activists focus on pro-active measures to welcome refugees. For example, Dresden has welcome cafes for refugees, in which German and refugee families mingle socially to facilitate integration. Shops sport derisive signs saying Neo Nazis are not welcome, indicating that businesses are taking a firm stance. Those, who march, find non-violent and humorous ways to de-legitimize the extreme right. These efforts were inspiring. I left Dresden feeling that the city is changing, and that its people are engaged in the process.
Finally, with Charlottesville still fresh, I also want to underline that there are also differences in the U.S. and German situation: in the face of PEGIDA’s hate speech, the German political leadership shows no equivalence. Major parties of all shades continuously and vehemently condemn any speech that foments xenophobia or condones violence. Glorification of past violence is remains off-limit in the political mainstream. Germany's commitment to learning from the past in order to foster a civic culture for the future ensures that the extreme right remains at the margins of political culture. Finally, bearing arms at public demonstrations would be unfathomable.
Europe is experiencing another migration wave. This may seem like same old news, but there are two significant differences. For one, the routes and with it, the migrants’ vulnerabilities changed. Secondly, the kind of migrant arriving differs. Europe is now witnessing an increasingly mixed migration stream. Europe’s tool-set is even less well equipped to respond to this smaller, but tougher migration.
Who are the migrants arriving?
Within the last three years, Europe witnessed the highest immigration rate since the Balkan wars: wars in the Middle East and Africa caused a historic refugee wave. Over eighty percent of migrants arriving on Europe’s shore up until last year hailed from war torn countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, Libya and Nigeria, as well as repressive Eritrea. Now, more and more economic migrants are taking the risky journey. Experts refer to this movement as mixed migration, meaning that people with different backgrounds and motivations travel together along the same routes. Top countries of origin are Nigeria, Guinea, Cote-d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, and only then Syria. Nigeria experiencing two conflicts in the North: the continuous fight with Boko Haram, and violent skirmishes between pastoralists and farmers. Yet, with much of the country stable, an equally important push factor is the severe and poorly managed economic recession Nigeria suffered last year.
How the induced shift in routes changed the migration stream
The closure of the Balkan route is an important factor in this change. In my primer last year, I outlined the three routes, through which refugees arrived: The Eastern Route via Turkey and Greece; the Central Route from Libya to Italy, and finally the Western Route via Morocco and Algeria towards Spain. These are still the main routes to Europe; however, their respective popularity shifted away from the Western route and towards the more dangerous Central Route.
During the height of the refugee influx, most migrants arrived via the Eastern route. In response, Europe adopted a two-pronged approach: increased border control along the Balkan states and the Aegean Sea, and off-shore control through the bilateral EU- Turkey deal. In exchange for economic assistance, Turkey takes back migrants, which left its shores, and polices its coast aggressively. Hungary erected a border fence with electric shock capacity along its border with Serbia. Consequentially, about 7000 refugees are stuck in Serbia in Calais-like conditions (For more info, read my account on the refugee situation along the border). According to the International Organization for Migration, arrivals to Europe have generally decreased, with Eastern route seeing the largest effect: while in spring of 2016, Greece registered almost 200,000 arrivals; this year, it registered short of 5,000.
Europe thus succeeded in curtailing refugee arrivals via the Eastern route. The trouble is that this route is the most frequented by genuine refugees: According to the newest UNHCR report, Syrian, Afghan and Iraqis continue to travel via the Eastern route. The difference is that the route has become more difficult, more expensive and brutal. Refugees experience victimization at the hands of human smugglers and border guards, and linger months in transit countries. The closure of the Western Route thus affects the most vulnerable migrants the most.
The closure of the Eastern Route thus affects the most vulnerable migrants the most: the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
By contrast, migration along the Central and to a lesser degree Western routes has increased: This spring, Italy received roughly 100,000 more migrants than in the spring of 2016. Spain received a 1000 more. Deaths along the Spanish route increased over hundred-fold, and remained high along the Central Route. This year alone, 2150 people drowned trying to reach Europe. Last year, over 4500 people perished at sea. Drowning has been no deterrent to migration.
The shift in routes is significant for two reasons: for one, there is no easy way to close the route. Secondly, the route is much more dangerous.
The sea crossing is longer and much more unpredictable. A UK House of Lords report determined that EU efforts to patrol the sea via Operation Sofia did not stem migration, but instead increased the death toll of migrants. The human smuggling networks respond to increased sea patrols with more risky maneuvers. As European border guards destroyed wooden boats and increased drone patrols, smugglers turned to the use of quickly inflating rubber dinghies. These vessels are not stable enough for long sea crossings. Smugglers fill the dinghies at more than double of their capacity, and sometimes fail to provide fuel or even a working engine. The result is a staggering death toll at sea.
Libya – from a destination to a transit country.
Libya’s instability is key for understanding the new migration wave. Once a country, in which many Africans found work, post-Gaddafi Libya is rife with danger, especially for people of color. This is problematic for two reasons: for one, economic migrants, who planned to work in Libya, are now fleeing to safer grounds, despite knowing the dangers of the journey. Migrants travelling through Libya face danger from both armed militia, and abusive government forces. According to UNHCR, armed groups dominate the smuggling business. Journalists report frequent kidnappings, extortions and abuse, and even the sale of migrants as slaves.
Secondly, with a weak and beleaguered government, Libya is no partner for a Turkey-style bilateral agreement. Since Gaddafi’s downfall, armed factions compete for power. Nevertheless, Italy signed a migrant deal and Europe has invested in Libya’s coast guard, border control in the south and detainment capacity for blocked and readmitted migrants, with little to show for it. Despite tens of millions of dollars in training, the Libyan coast guard have tortured, threatened and sexually abused rescued migrants, and even shot at and sank migrant ships. Both Amnesty and Doctors without Borders have reported that factions of the Libyan coast guard have colluded with smugglers. Detention centers for migrants are abysmal. Nevertheless, Europe continues to pour money into the Libyan coast guard.
In short, Europe cannot easily close the Central route. Increased policing has only increased the death toll. Libya is no reliable partner in managing migration streams. The instability in Libya will likely continue to be an important push factor for migrants.
Why is this so important?
These changes matter, because Europe’s migration legal structure is ill equipped to address the current migration crisis. Currently, Europe lacks the tools to address the bottle-neck situation in Italy: this year alone, more than 84,000 migrants arrived in Italy. Italy, like Greece, is now harboring a disproportionate size of the incoming migrant population. Like Greece, Italy also suffers from a debt-ridden and sluggish economy. Italian political parties are grappling with the consequences, with populists and far right parties seizing on the migration question.
Additionally, Europe’s meager burden sharing policies do not apply to economic migrants. For refugees, the EU has an embattled relocation scheme, but granted asylum rates for the current top countries of origin are low. France and Germany joined response focused on the same old and questionable solutions: increased investment in Libya’s security apparatus. Italy is calling for a more ambitious approach: the repatriation of economic migrants along with refugees alongside of investment in Libya’s and Niger’s border regimes.
Political will to address the current situation is low. Resistance to relocation of economic migrants will be high. Currently, Europe has a commitment to combat irregular migration, and no legal avenues for integration. The proposed relocation of refugees spawned divisions between within the European Union. Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary each refuse to take in any asylum seekers. The European Union is considering legal action against these countries.
Europe's current rate of relocation of refugees. Most countries have not fulfilled their quota. Economic migrants do not even qualify for relocation.
Solutions in sight?
Missing from current political debates is a reckoning with the fact that this migration wave has no quick fixes, neither outside nor within Europe. The status quo also remains untenable. Just this year alone, we witnessed over 2000 people dying to reach Europe.
Those, who do reach Europe, have limited avenues for integration. In highly bureaucratic welfare states, the lack of legal papers dooms migrants to live on the fringes: In Germany, for example, legal residence paper are required at every step: without legal residence, a migrant cannot find housing; without housing, they cannot open a bank account; without a bank account, they cannot find a job (which also requires a work permit); and then, without a job, they cannot finance a life. In several German states, doctors are required to report migrants without papers. At every step, irregular migrants find themselves at odds with a highly functioning bureaucracy set up to serve citizens and regulated guests.
In the long-term, stemming mixed migration requires investing in the economies of sending countries. The short term requires a re-evaluation, whether reforms to Europe’s migration policies can provide humane solutions. The question remains, how will Europe respond, if the tired, poor, and huddled masses continue to risk death to arrive to its safer shores?
Lately, the situation along the Hungarian-Serbian border has received quite a bit of negative news coverage. This has prompted me to skip ahead in my chronicles of my journey through Europe to the last and maybe most emotional stop. Since my travel there, the situation has become increasingly polarized, with the refugees suffering as the governments of Hungary and Europe stand-off in a political fight. I hope to write a nuanced portrayal that focuses in on some of the personalities I encountered at the border.
Recently, Hungary updated its border fence with electric shock capacity, heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers to warn-off intruders. All this in addition to the previous fence constructed in fall of 2015, and the massive security operation involving 10,000 police and soldier patrol. Since the erection of the original fence, around 8,000 migrants have been stranded in Serbia. Hungary is also constructing more transit camps, and has enacted legislation, which approves the detention of all migrants in camps.
The upgrades come on the heels of international condemnation regarding Hungary’s treatment of migrants and refugees. Oxfam released a report this week, in which they documented widespread abuse of the migrants by Hungarian police. This includes episodes of police forcing migrants in detention to strip naked, and sit in the snow, while officials douse them in cold water. Doctors without Borders (MSF) also documented the injuries they have been treating, which point to systematic, brutal abuses. Anecdotes include refugees forced to lie on the ground, while border guards stomp on them. Such imagery along the border of the European Union gives pause; it is deeply at odds with European values. MSF referred to this abuse as a “a ritual of brutality at the European Union's own border, designed to stop people from trying to cross again.” Hungarian advocacy groups are calling for investigations into the nature of the abuses.
When I visited the border, I learned that the Hungarian government rotates the Hungarian border police and military in short regular intervals: they are recruited from other regions in Hungary, far from their community and families. Whether by design or not, this law enforcement strategy ensures that border patrol is a short-term job and that the exposure of individual officials to the refugees is limited. Even though refugees reside in camps sometimes up to 15 months, they remain just passing strangers to the officials on rotation. I could not personally speak to the border patrol, or take pictures; my presence was against the law.
Let me back-track to July 2016. I have just finished an 800-mile journey from Berlin to Budapest, which took an extra week than planned. At this point, I knew I could not bike to the border within my time frame. I nearly skipped the last stop, but it was all the kind people I met in Budapest, who urged me on. We don’t know, who to believe- the international media, or the local media, some said.
Hungarians don’t have easy access to the border, and increasingly difficult access to independent news. Hungarian government has made the border a restricted military zone: no one is allowed near without permission. Yet, anti-migrant vigilante groups activities are tolerated. In the meantime, Victor Orbán’s government has launched a persistent propaganda campaign against the refugees. Through steady government interference, Orbán has limited press freedom significantly. Simultaneously, starting in early 2015, he utilized the refugee question to deflect criticism of corruption, and to whip up nationalist sentiments. Spending tax-payer money, his government sent out letters of disinformation about refugees to 8 million Hungarians; rolled out a misleading poster campaign, and organized a referendum on the refugee resettlement question. In short, the government has opportunistically utilized the refugee crisis to fuel its own popularity. This has elicited a polarized response, with liberal human rights activists engaging in resistance and solidarity work, nationalists enthusiastically supporting Orbán and non-political Hungarians somewhere in between: uncomfortable and saddened with some of the international news, but also unsure how many of the Hungarian media claims are true. Who to believe? To help me answer this question, a Hungarian couple drove me the last leg of the journey to Szeged near the Hungarian-Serbian border. Their commitment is a stellar example of Hungarian hospitality. The more troubling the political situation along my journey, the more support and hospitality I received from people as well.
In Szeged, I met with Migszol, a volunteer-run migrant solidarity group. Migszol formed in the early days of mass border crossings in 2015 in response to the humanitarian emergency: the massive number of migrants without food, water, clothing and direction. They organized volunteers, received and sorted donations, and as more and more international humanitarians arrived, acted as on-the-ground coordinators. Over a Hungarian dish of lecho, they gave me an overview of how their organization came to evolve, and provided an overview of the political developments on the border. Migszol takes care to build relationships with the local police. Through those relationships, they gain access to the border as one of the few nonprofits. Without their coordination, the police and military would have blocked my access to the refugees.
Migszol drove me to the border-crossing near the village of Röszke. With the border fence erected, the Hungarian government has two official transit centers at the Serbian border. The other one is the Kelebia/ Tompa Transit point. The border itself was hot and dusty, and well patrolled: in the 90 minutes that we were there, at least one patrol came through, and stationary patrol kept an eye on me. Anytime I spoke too long to a refugee, they would saunter over. Directly at the border, there are around a dozen containers, which are reserved for single men. These, walled off with high fences, are under constant surveillance. Men sit in small shipping containers in incessant waiting. Since I visited, Hungary installed another 324 shipping containers between the two transit zones. They each sleep 6 men in bunk beds. I could not get access inside. Hungary built a detention camp nearby for families.
The fenced off detainment area for refugee men. They live in these shipping containers, in this this narrow strip for up to 9 months just waiting to for an asylum decision
Every day, Hungary admits around a dozen of refugees into the caged transit area. These can submit their asylum claims. The asylum procedure takes about 4 to 9 months. Most refugees do not want to apply for asylum in Hungary; their prime destination countries are Germany, as well as France and the United Kingdom. Together with Greece and Italy, those countries account for 80% of refugee applications in the EU. Hungary just passed legislation undercutting incentives for stay even more: Hungary does not permit refugees to work, does not offer financial support to those detained, restricts freedom of movement, and these actions together with the rising xenophobia, ensure that refugees want to travel on. That is why Merkel’s announcement in 2015 that her government would discontinue automatic deportation to Hungary, disregarding the EU Dublin rules, was so important: It decreased refugee anxiety over undergoing forced asylum applications in a transit country.
Beyond the border fence, there is a narrow strip, which is still Hungarian territory. This way, when the government rejects an asylum application and deports the individual to the other side of the fence, they are not deporting them directly into Serbian territory. Hungary thus avoids having to report the deportation as such to the European Union.
Across the border, people wild-camp in the desperate hope of getting into Hungary. In July 2016, when I arrived at the camp, BBC reported that about 850 people were wild camping in this unofficial camp. The Guardian reports that around 7000 refugees are stuck in Serbia, waiting to gain access now. From the fence, I could observe encampments for around 200 people. There were 12 portable toilets for their use. More refugees were in Serbian migration camps nearby. These are unofficial camps. Humanitarians visit and provide medical attention, but cannot have a steady presence. Serbia prefers for refugees to stay in official camps further from the border, whereas refugees hope that their immediate presence increases their chance of being among the 12 to 15 chosen individuals to enter the transit detention area, and maybe to be allowed to leave and travel on to Germany.
Most migrants waiting at Röszke are from West Asia, and specifically Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and Iran: repeated displacement is common. As more Afghans flee to neighbor countries, the ability of local communities and economies to absorb them decreases. A mix of local hostility and lack of livelihood forces refugees to move again, in hopes of a safer place. I learned that the refugee movements self-organize along linguistic lines: Afghans travel via Horgos, and Syrians travel via Kelebia. I spoke to some West Africans as well, from Mali, who were excited to speak with someone in French. The refugees self-organized a steering committee in the camp. With 850 people waiting at the time to be one of the 15 admitted refugees, the community self-organized based on urgency: families with young children, the sick, the elderly, and those, who waited the longest get priority. Some had waited for over a year already.
Speaking to refugees across the fence was moving: the family I spoke to was from Mazar-E-Sharif, in Afghanistan. I learned that kids create toys out of the discarded things, and find a way to occupy themselves in the dusty sand. Mothers ask for shawls and medicine. Those from the leadership council update Migszol on who made it into the caged transit area, and what other humanitarian organization visited. Refugees eschew talking about the journey, and emphatically avoid answering questions about their destination: if someone could prove that their destination is not Hungary, it could be grounds to reject their asylum claim. The official logic here is that a true refugee should stop at the first safe country, here Hungary, even if the country does not want them.
I spoke to the men lingering in the caged area. Most did not want to be photographed: any documentation of their existence in Hungary could undermine their asylum claim in another country for the same reason. One men particularly stuck out: he spoke English fluently with a British accent. I asked, how come, and whether he worked for the British military in Afghanistan. Maybe, maybe not, I cannot speak to you about that, he answered with a smirk and a hint of irony that left me feeling that likely, he had. It is not uncommon for Afghans, who worked as freelancers for NATO as translators or guides to then be targeted for retribution attacks. Not recognized as official employees, coalition governments do not guarantee their safety, and do not provide preferential access to visas. Together with other refugees, they are left to fend for themselves on the same dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Europe on foot. Before the Hungarian military shooed me away, he added, just because I’m here behind the fence doesn’t mean I am so different from you. His words stayed with me.
I left the border impressed by the resilience of the families and young men, who fled violence in Afghanistan, covered thousands of kilometers and waited for months in a dusty hot camp for the remote chance of access to a country, where their fate is increasingly political fodder for a nationalist government. I do not know, whether the people, to whom I spoke, made it to Europe, or got rejected.
Hungary has only doubled down on its detention practices, and it denies the abuses, despite the documented evidence. International institutions have also spoken out against current detention practices. The European Court for Human Rights ruled in favor of two migrants, deciding that the Hungarian detention in the transit zone was unlawful. The United High Commissioner for Refugees reminded the government that the detainment of children contradicts both international and EU law. Indefinite detention without recourse often aggravates the mental suffering of people, who suffered trauma, and is particularly harmful for children. But Orbán’s government in a stand-off against the EU, the individual stories of those caught on the border are likely to be lost. I have no doubt that local organizations, such as Migszol, the Helsinki Committee and others, will continue to advocate for more humane solutions and raise awareness. I am deeply inspired and grateful for their work.
Winter hitting Europe hard, many refugees are in dire situations: the weather in Greece, Serbia and South-eastern Europe exposes migrants and refugees to life-threatening conditions. The crisis shows Europe continues to be unprepared for the humanitarian demands of the numbers of people seeking shelter on its shores, despite its prolonged nature and signs that it is here to stay.
Winter in Europe
Winter hit Europe unusually hard with arctic temperatures and heavy snowfall across much of the region. Greece, Serbia and the wider region suffered temperatures of negative 20 degrees Celsius/ negative 4 Fahrenheit last week. This week, snow turned to cold rain. With lack of adequate shelter, this has caused severe humanitarian consequences for migrants. The International Organization for Migration noted the first deaths by freezing last week.
The current conditions showcase a failure of the respective host governments, such as Greece and Serbia, and the European Union to adequately prepare for the season and winterize shelter. Doctors without Borders (MSF) referred to a cynical neglect of European States’ policies. The humanitarian community, MSF notes, has warned the governments for months that winter-safe conditions will be needed.
The fact is that winter should not have been a surprise: it may be unseasonably cold, but the seasons come with predictable routine. In fact, weather forecasters predicted the weather with adequate notice. Many of the refugees and migrants in the affected areas, such as Greece and Italy as well as Serbia, have been waiting for months to have their fate decided by the governments. In the European Union, with all of their resources, such desperation ought not to be present. And yet…
Currently, there are more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, most without adequate facilities: they either are in overcrowded camps, abandoned warehouses and factories, some sleeping outside. Most importantly, a vast number of refugees and migrants are facing this dire winter without insulation. The islands, where many refugees are waiting for the assessment of their asylum claims, are especially strained: In Samos, most of the 1400 refugees are in tents without heating or insulation; in Lesbos, 5,000 asylum seekers are in similar conditions. UNHCR has ramped up efforts to move people into heated tents, especially families with children. The Greek government responded with some short term fixes like boats, which can temporarily host up to 300 migrants. Despite the dire conditions, news outlets report that it will still be days before the Greek government will have enough winter shelter for all migrants. The European Commission referred to the situation for migrants in Greece as untenable.
In a parliamentary debate, Greek’s migration policy minister Yannis Mouzalas, conceded that the conditions for migrants and refugees were appalling. Giorgos Chondros, a politician from the ruling Syriza party spoke to German media and accepted that Greece failed to respond adequately. Yet, Chondros also points to the failure of the wider European community to respond. He notes that the failed EU-Turkey deal caused massive backlogs in Greece, as promises of redistribution through quotas to Europe never materialized due to the Eastern bloc's resistance. Additionally, the deal requires Greece to keep asylum seekers on the Islands, aggravating their humanitarian situation. Finally, Chondros notes that European Union did not follow through enough on promises of bureaucratic assistance in the form of administrative labor. The European Union’s assistance to Greece has indeed been focused on the non-governmental sector: UNHCR, The Red Cross, and other international NGOs. Chondros thus argues that the failure may be firstly one of Greece, but it is also a failure of the European Union to design an adequate response to the migration situation. “The problem,” he says, “is a European one, an international one, and no single country alone, much less a country in economic and social crisis, can solve this problem on their own.” Still, as The Red Cross noted, it has been ten months since the EU-Turkey deal, in which the Greece government failed to address the over-crowding and lack of adequate shelter. The finger pointing and soul-searching indicates a lack of a concerted forward-looking response on behalf of both Greece and the European Union.
Simultaneously, Greece may be the most dramatic case, but not the only one: More than 7,500 refugees and migrants are stranded in Serbia, including the border zone with Hungary, which I visited this summer. In Serbia, the camps are overcrowded. Still, the government responded to the dire weather, and around 80 percent of migrants are now in heated shelter. Yet, too many people continue to sleep out in the open. Despite rapid UNHCR efforts, just in the capital, around 1200 migrants, including 300 unaccompanied children, are still without adequate shelter. Many of those stranded migrants are those, who refused registration by the Serbian government out of fear that it may either limit their claims in Europe, or allow the Serbian government to deport them back to Macedonia. For refugees, the myriad of European government responses to asylum claims are confusing, making them distrustful of any potential detention and registration, which would limit their ability to journey to more welcoming countries.
Hungary reaffirmed that it will not open the border, even as the backlog at the border exposes migrants to dangerous weather conditions. Instead, the Hungarian government is re-introducing mandatory detention for all migrants, regardless of valid asylum claims. Hungary thus is openly defying orders from the European Court of Human Rights, and pressure from the EU and the UN.
Notwithstanding these temperatures, Libyan based human traffickers continue to send boats across the Mediterranean: the Italian coast guard this week rescued a several boats this week. As of writing, 1,202 migrants arrived to Europe in the first weeks of 2017, not counting the 13, who died en route. Most of them, 1,159 to be exact, traveled the sea route to Italy. "So far this winter we have had no rest. We have not gone a full week without a rescue," Mathilde Auvillain, a spokeswoman for SOS Mediterranean told ABC news. The European Commission expect that three million migrants will arrive in Europe in this coming year.
So, we are starting 2017 with a 'new' migration crisis in Europe, which exposes the continent's continued inability to plan ahead and seek political resolutions- a negligence that comes at a cost to those caught up in the journey.
As we celebrate Christmas – which in Germany, as in Poland, is celebrated tonight on Christmas Eve – Berliner’s are still mourning the terror attack on a beloved tradition across Germany: The Weihnachtsmarkt. This past Monday, a Tunisian man, Ansi Amri drove a stolen Polish truck into the crowds gathering at the annual Christmas Markt at the Breitscheidplatz in West Berlin. 12 people died during the attack, and in addition, the attacker murdered the Polish driver of the truck. The Italian police killed Ansi Amri yesterday, when he drew a gun during a routine stop. The German police continues its investigation into the planning of the attack and any potential accessories. The Tunisian intelligence in the meantime is investigating the terror cell in Tunisia, arresting the suspect’s nephew today. After Nice, this is the second attack that involved Tunisian nationals operating on behald of ISIS. For Germany, only time will tell the political consequences of the attack.
This attack struck close to home for me. Whether the attacker knew or not, he chose a place with historical significance among Berlin’s several Christmas market: the beset square, Breidscheidplatz, hosts the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which the Allies bombed in WWII. West Berliners decided to preserve the church as a ruin as a daily reminder never to forget the destruction the Germans of the past brought upon themselves. The place is thus emotionally charged and symbolic for Berliner’s at large. Before WWII, in the 1920, it was a cosmopolitan square, where Berlin’s alternative and sexually liberated crowds mingled, drawing the ire of the Nazi leadership. Then, when I was growing up in West Berlin, this was the buzzling commercial center of the walled in city, and where we would go as teenagers to have a coffee and people watch. After the wall came down, it went into disarray as all the hipness moved East, just to be recently reclaimed and renovated again. I doubt the attacker knew all this history. What he did intuit is that an attack on a beloved German tradition would open a wound that could change the political tide.
The political responses have been varied. As the event unfolded, chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at an event praising Germany’s solidarity focused Zeitgeist, saying that Germany’s diversity will strengthen the country. Now, everyone is holding their breath, whether the attack will put that Zeitgeist into question, especially with next year’s elections, set for October 22nd, looming.
The German government proceeded cautiously in the aftermath, waiting for conclusive evidence before utilizing the word terror attack and addressing the public. German President Joachim Gauck underlined the need for solidarity across the political divide in the face of an attack. When Merkel finally spoke, before the attacker had been identified, she described her response as aghast, appaled and deeply saddened. The chancellor spoke of mourning and of resolve to stand together in the face of an attack on German values. Should the attacker be a refugee, someone to whom Germany offered shelter, she added, it would be a detestable act, particularly hard to bear. While Amri turned out not to be a refugee, the government will now have to content with the failure to deport or track a person suspected of radical activity. Not full 48 hours after the attack, Merkel’s cabinet passed several measures to address security concerns, including an increase of video surveillance, which is particularly sensitive in Germany.
Berlin responded to the attack with dignified mourning: the flag flew at half-mast, and the city organized a solidarity concert.
Simultaneously, in the current political landscape, parties exhibited predictable posturing: In the first 24 hours, the German right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland, true to its shock and awe strategies, blamed Merkel personally for the 12 deceased calling them “Merkel’s dead.” In their view, Merkel’s refugee policy permitted a state of lawlessness that cumulated in this terror attack. Shortly thereafter, the head of the Bavarian CSU, the sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, called for a review of the German immigration and security policy. His party further underlined that mass movements, such as the current refugee movement, entail risks that warrant government investigation. The CSU openly criticizes Merkel for having pushed the alliance too far from its security focused roots with her refugee policy. In Berlin, these responses were seen as a cheap way to utilize a national tragedy for political gain. Members of Merkel’s party were shocked that their sister party would merge the terror attack with the refugee policies. What crystalized in the aftermath of this attack is that with every political spat, the rift between these historically allied parties is growing. Election watchers, who may be nervous about Merkel's prospects in next year's elections will pay attention to this rift and the growing pull of the far-right party.
Meanwhile, the political opposition withheld immediate criticism within subsequent days, waiting until more details emerged. Berlin’s Social Affairs Senator from Die Linke, Germany’s far left party, expressed concern that the attack may lead to retribution attacks on refugees, calling for increased protection around shelters. The Green party called for security measures, which ought to be thoughtful and evidence based, and also cautioned against any restrictions of the current refugee policy. The SPD, once the main opposition party but today a mere shadow of itself, offered an uninspiring message that ‘everything needs to be done’ to fully investigate events. The German liberal party, the FDP, called the attack a failure of the German state, and the German intelligence services. They noted the fact that Amri had been previously surveilled, implying that the attack could have been prevented.
Out of all of these criticism, the latter is likely to hit the hardest in the near future: the German intelligence services will struggle to explain how they ceased to track someone, who they had previously investigated for potential terrorist attack plans and known links to a radical Salafist preacher.
Additionally, public scrutiny will focus in on deportations of non-refugees. In fact, Amri, a Tunisian whose application for asylum was declined, had been due to for deportation. However, since he had travelled without a valid Passport, Tunisia refused to acknowledge German’s request for deportation, leaving Amri in legal limbo. Without a doubt, this attack will put the pressure on German officials to process immigration applications faster, to streamline deportation procedures and seek deportation agreements with the North African states. Germany currently does not have any cooperation agreement with Tunisia, which could facilitate automatic deportation. Merkel called for the speedy deportation of Tunisians, who lack a permit to stay. In response, Tunisians organized protests outside of their parliament beseeching the government to refuse to take back any known terrorists.
The attack will likely lead to reforms of the current Duldung/ ‘Tolerated’ status of those, whose asylum application was rejected. Under German law, if an immigrant’s application was denied, but they are too sick to travel; may be in danger in the home country; or they are lacking the needed identification papers for the home country to accept and can prove that they are in the process of obtaining these papers (as was the case here), the applicant gets a so called Tolerated status. Duldung entails similar privileges as a refugee status: shelter, integration classes and financial support. Currently, they are about 168,000 people in Germany, who are staying as Tolerated individuals, and out of these, 37,000 could not be deported for lack of paper, as in the case of Amri. While Minister of Interior is proposing a reform of the Duldung status and the Minister of Justice even proposed a deportation detention, protections under German constitution will likely prevent radical change.
Time will tell, whether the attack will have consequences on the German Zeitgeist embracing solidarity and diversity, and on Merkel’s chances to continue her policies past fall of 2017. As deeply saddened by events as I am, I am also heartened by the tone of the political debate in Germany: while U.S. President-elect Trump immediately utilized the attack to renew calls for a Muslim registry, fomenting Islamophonia, most German politicians took the lead from police investigation, avoiding immediate politicization of the immigration and refugee debate and of Islam. Instead, they honed in on lapses by the German security services and loopholes within the current immigration system. In a globally increasingly polarized political climate, the German response is reassuring.
Since publishing, the SPD vice chair held a longer interview, in which he condemned the CSU's attempt to merge the refugee and security debate. Instead of a change of refugee policies, Germany needs to invest more in police, he added.
On German taxes, courtship and schools --Dinner with a German host family of a Syrian teenage refugee
Perhaps one of the dearest experiences on my trip across Europe was dining with a host family to a Syrian teenager in Berlin’s multi-cultural Treptow district. Over a German meal of fish, potatoes and salad, I spend hours speaking to Sascha, the German host dad, and Majd, his guest from Syria. Along the way, I learned the ups and downs on a personal integration story. Majd has bright blue eyes, dark hair and an optimistic, happy energy, which invites a certain camaraderie. Majd was still learning German but he didn’t shy away from telling his story- between German, English and some Arabic words and lots of laughter, communication flowed. Enjoying the setting summer sun on their balcony with a scenic view over the Berlin Spree river, and listening to Majd joyfully talk about life in Berlin, I found it hard to reconcile the hardships Majd fled with the ordinary happiness of this family moment.
Majd arrived in Berlin at age 17. He traveled most of the 2500 miles’ journey from Syria alone, as him and his brother got separated. His family remained. Arriving in 2015, Majd traversed the now closed route via Turkey through Hungary to Germany. He spoke of rubber boats crossing the Aegean Sea, and of finding a way to mix in with tourist groups in Budapest to avoid being spotted by police.
We steered clear of any topics potentially risking re-traumatization, avoiding dwelling on the violence that prompted Majd’s flight. Though later, in a private moment, his host Sascha told me of how shocked the well-experienced translator was during Majd’s asylum proceedings, as he translated Majd’s story. Majd, Sascha emphasized, is resilient.
Finally, in Berlin, after months of travel, Majd’s challenge was to lodge an asylum claim fast. He recounted long lines in front of the local authority for asylum. He remembered how his heart sank as he spoke to others, who waited for three weeks just to get registered. To avoid the lines, he intercepted a woman hurrying into the building to start her working day and told her, he was alone in Berlin . As he recounted how she shuttled him in past the line of waiting refugees, Majd flashed me that charming smile with a twinkle in the eye: I tend to be lucky, he said. Lucky maybe, ingenious for sure, I thought
Thus, began Majd’s bureaucratic journey. Even for me, an educated German, the asylum process is rather confusing: under German law, there are three different categories of protective status. There is the Asylum status, in which the applicant can prove that they are persecuted by the state. Asylum is thus for targeted political violence, and requires a high burden of proof from the applicant. Much more common is the refugee protection status, after the Geneva Refugee Convention, reserved for people fleeing personal risk, due to their political engagement, race, ethnicity, gender, religion and (increasingly) sexual orientation. The risk can come from a non-state actor, such as a terrorist or militia group. Both statuses are granted a three year stay in Germany, including the right to work, and may apply for family reunion. If after three years, the German state still warrants their status as valid, the applicant may apply for permanent residence. For the success of the latter, the applicant will have to prove progress in integration in the German society, as measured through language and economic engagement. The third status is subsidiary protection, for individuals, whose lives may be in danger in their home countries, but who fail to provide the burden of proof that they personally are at risk of persecution. Germany will thwart deportation and grant a temporary stay of a year, which can be extended thereafter every two years, up to seven years. If the situation in the home country doesn’t improve within seven years, the applicant may apply for permanent residence. Work permits can be granted to those under protection, but require another application with the German employment agency. Those under subsidiary protection have to wait two years, before they can apply for family reunification. While still a strong protection, it’s temporary status is rather nerve-wracking and the delay of family reunification a hard hit for minors especially.
To complicate matters, German bureaucrats have quite a bit of latitude in the decision making: so, for example, both Majd and his brother fled from Syria due to similar experiences in the same period. But upon arrival in Germany, one brother received subsidiary protection, while another brother, whose application was processed in neighboring Brandenburg, received refugee protection. Similar stories, same family background, both unaccompanied minors, different German states and different outcomes. The difference has important consequences for Majd’s family however: child refugees can apply to bring in their parents and siblings under family reunification, but only if they are recognized as refugees and only for as long as they are underage. Unfortunately for Majd, both him and his brother reached legal maturity before Germany could process the family reunification applications. Now, all he can do is skype every weekend with family back home and focus on creating a new life for himself in Berlin.
In this process, I gathered quickly that Majd was lucky to have a German family to help him navigate this new land. Majd only moved in with Sascha after he turned 18. Before, as many other unaccompanied child refugees, he was under the care of the German Youth Ministry. In Berlin, due to lack of space, the ministry hires out hostels to house unaccompanied minors, sometimes 6 in a room, with a social worker in the building to provide care. Majd made friends with one of his roommate, who later got transferred to a host family. When Majd was about to turn 18, he was nervous. Germany considers an 18-year-old youth a full adult, responsible for finding their own accommodation and for navigating the school and job programs on their own. From one day to another, these unaccompanied minors must leave the hostels and find an apartment, as if the 18th birthday bestows life skills and maturity instantaneously. Concerned with potential homelessness of the boy, Majd’s friend’s host family asked around the neighborhood, and Sasha and his then wife volunteered to take him in. Officially, they are his landlords, thus allowing Majd to have a registered residence with the German social services, as he starts his adult life.
Fast forward to the summer evening, when I dine with them. During the conversation, it becomes quickly apparent to me, how beneficial having a caring host family has been for Majd, and how hard navigating German culture has been. Despite the tremendous challenges Majd has overcome, his youth was still evident: Girls and soccer were more on his mind than school at times, despite Sascha’s admonition that truancy would lead to suspension. But Sascha was using a German pedagogic of letting a youth make his own decision and Majd didn’t believe that schools suspend children, because per him, schools don’t care about attendance in Syria. In this case, Majd learned the hard way to listen to Sascha. Kicked out of school, he was now looking at integration and German classes for adult refugees instead.
Cultural clashes were in display in other ways too: turns out that dating German girls is very different from dating back in Syria. What back home would be considered a watchful protective eye over a romantic interest was considered by German girls controlling behavior. Sascha and Majd had long conversations about how to treat women, including consent and respect of privacy. Listening to their story, I do wonder how so many young boys arriving in a completely different culture navigate this particularly tricky social ritual.
The most passionate conversations were about one of the driest subject most of us rarely think about: taxes. Yes, take a breath, taxes were a topic of long conversations that went to the heart of cultural differences. Germans, in general, take pride in the German social welfare state: respect for the law and paying taxes for the common good are generally valued by Germans. Majd instead expressed sincere puzzlement. Not only did he describe a culture back home, in which tax avoidance were common occurrence, but he described how so many second and third generation businessmen of either Arab or Turkish heritage were helping incoming refugees to find a job off-the-record. Local restaurants and markets hired refugees either completely in the black market, or officially part-time, unofficially full time. From Majd’s perspective, this was a win-win situation: local business owners were helping their people in a desperate situation, while gaining cheap labor and avoiding taxes. Refugees found a job within a familiar community, as they learned to navigate the German system and learned the language. But it’s illegal, Sascha interjected with restrained desperation. So, began a long discussion, which Sascha and Majd clearly have had many times before: Sascha emphasized the illegality of the matter, the criminal consequences and the irresponsibility of a community, which benefits off the German tax payers. Majd listened with a twinkle in his eye. In sincere deference to his host dad, he promised to never engage in such tax fraud, but couldn't restrain himself from expressing disbelief that the German government would really crack down on small businesses. He was confident that businessmen would outsmart the government.
As I sat back, and witnessed a respectful exchange, which included a lot of jokes and laughter, I reflected on the cultural differences at display: the German, law abiding one, priding itself in a shared dedication to the common good and the Syrian one, in which communities find creative ways outside of a state to help each other. What shone threw is the deep care and respect both Majd and Sascha had for each other, and how having a host father helped Majd (who despite his 18 years, still seemed so young, after all) navigate a new country with its taboos and pitfalls.
Majd is lucky: only a minority of the 67,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Germany are placed within families. The majority move from hostel to hostel, and upon adulthood, abruptly must find their way on their own in Germany. I do wonder, how they navigate the many cultural cleavages.
Yesterday, the Hungarian people voted on a referendum on whether to oppose the European Union plan to resettle some refugees to the country. Those who voted – which at 45% is not much short of half of the Hungarian population – overwhelmingly rejected the refugee resettlement: 98% of voters voted against the resettlement plan.
In order for the referendum to come into effect, voter turnout had to pass 50%. Even if the referendum took effect, EU law trumps state law. Thus, the legal standing of this vote was questionable, and it is more comparable to a symbolic vote. This explains perhaps why media coverage may have been lower than one would expect.
But the referendum is an important symbolic act, which epitomizes the current trends in Hungary. As Prime Minister Victor Orban was quick to point out: more Hungarians voted against the resettlement of any refugees into their country than had voted to join the EU (3.249 million votes were cast against refugees, while in 2003, only 3.056 million votes in favor of joining the EU.) This vote is an important marker of the mood in a country, which is at the front-line of Europe’s protectionist tendencies.
Since I cannot write a lengthier analysis of the matter, I wanted to briefly contextualize why the vote matters, and link to some excellent articles for you to read further. I intent to write several detailed posts on my findings in Hungary from my research trip soon.
So what is it all about?
The referendum, as it translates into English, asked voters: “Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?" The language, wordy and vague as it is, is hardly neutral.
This was a referendum on the EU plan to relocate 1,294 migrants to Hungary. Last fall, the EU adopted an Emergency Response Mechanism, which set the quota based on a country’s size, economy and current refugee population (the EU designed a calculus that weight these as such: 40% of the size of the population, 40% of the GDP, 10% of the average number of past asylum applications, 10% of the unemployment rate). Hungary's responsibility was rather small. With a population of 9,875 million, the effect of integrating a 1300 people on Hungary's culture, cohesion and economy would have been minor.
The vote matters for several reasons. One is that the vote epitomizes how the government has successfully led a powerful campaign, which build on and deepened xenophobia, nationalism and a strong opposition to immigration among the Hungarian population.
The Hungarian President has launched a government sponsored campaign against any refugee resettlement that cost Hungarian tax payers $40 million against migrants. The fact that so many tax payers money is re-routed away from much needed social project into a symbolic campaign speaks volumes on the current political situation in the country.
The campaign is ever-present in the country. When I was in Hungary this summer, it was impossible to take a 20-minute walk without a huge billboard advertising stretches of the truth at best, and lies about the refugees at worst. I am adding some pictures, which I took, and one, which a journalist took, but which shows the amount of billboards better than mine do:
The two pictured here translate into “The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants” and “Brussels wants to resettle a city-full off illegal immigrants in Hungary.” The Paris attacks were actually committed by French and Belgian nationals, who had an immigrant background. A city usually refers to a setlement of 50,000, not a 1000. But the truth hardly matters in this tax-funded government campaign. For a whole list of the billboards and translations, check out the Daily News Hungary’s translations.
When I spoke to Hungarians, many noted that this misleading campaign has permeated Hungarian daily lives. One person mentioned how her children told her now that in Kindergarten, migrant was used as a swear word. Hungary exemplifies the sociological processes, when a government is using massive propaganda that, in my opinion, can be equated to hate speech.
Beyond the local significance, the vote matters regionally. On the EU level, the vote affirms Orban’s determination to lead the Visegrad countries – Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – in their opposition to any EU efforts to distribute the refugees, thus blocking reforms to Dublin System. In my previous post, I briefly outline the Dublin regulations, and why they are dysfunctional in the face of the current crisis.
So why this opposition?
This question was driving my summer research. I have many thoughts on why Orban’s government is securitizing the migrant issue, and utilizing much needed tax payer money to foment xenophobia and fear. I plan to write many of these thoughts soon. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with readers some insightful pieces of analysis that are currently available, which get to the root of some of the dynamics that underlie the vote:
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.
I did it - I finished the ride, 795 miles and countless impressions. I know many of you are waiting for the reflection on the migration posts, and I apologize in advance. The substantive posts will have to wait a little. I need to contextualize and fact-check, what I learned. That process takes time. Time, which en route I used to gather new data and impressions along the way and to finish the tour.
But in the meantime, I wanted to share my impressions about biking second country, the Czech Republic: I spend the most time of my biking days on the trip in the Czech Republic. In order to get to Hungary, I had to cross the country from Prague to Vienna without the benefits of an officially mapped out Eurovelo route. Instead, I relied on local maps and the kind advice of strangers. The resulting ride was bound to have many surprises in store.
Biking Czech Republic was as beautiful as it was strenuous: It took me from the Elbe through South Bohemia, known for the Bohemians mountains, and on towards Moravia, also known for its Moravian highlands. I trained in the Appalachian Mountains close to Washington DC, so I was unfazed by everyone’s worried looks, when they warned me that it will be tough. Oh, was I humbled: biking hilly terrain three days in a row with a fully loaded bike does not compare to a speedy ride through skyline drive - but more on that later.
First I biked happily along the Elbe river bike path in the river valley flanked by the sandstone mountains, taking in the beautiful sights, crisp smells, and passing through medieval towns and occasionally by castles. Below are just some memorable views from the river side.
Right along the Elbe cycling path also lies Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German: a sight eternally marked by the horrors of the German Nazi government. The Germans occupied the fortress, built by the Austrian emperor as a military outpost and later a Czech military town, in order to create a Ghetto and Concentration camp. I made a point to visit, and take the historical tour of the concentration camp and learned that the camp was only part of the moral abyss of Terezin. Unbeknownst to me, its Ghetto was more akin to a labor camp, in which thousands Jews perished. The Nazis used Terezin as a stopping point for deportations towards the death camps further East.
The concentration camp itself was a Gestapo prison for the ‘worst’ of all categories: Jewish resistance fighters; Jews, who broke the anti-Semitic laws; as well as national resistance fighters and communists. The gruesomeness enacted there shocked my imagination (having visited Auschwitz and having volunteered as a translator of witness statements at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I thought I was hardened.)
At Terezin, it was the spontaneous cruelty of the guards and camp directors, which went above and beyond the ghastly machinery of the Holocaust, that deeply shook me: examples include the forced labor of prisoners to excavate a swimming pool with their bare hands so that the children of commanders could cool down from the summer heat. It was absurd imagining German kids ‘blissfully’ swimming in the middle of a concentration camp. Another example was the fighting pit; there, inmates were forced to fight to death, while commanders watched for personal enjoyment.
You may wonder, why I spend so much time sharing my experience, which is related to the past. I struggled with the question whether to include it in the post on the Czech Republic, a country occupied at the time. Yet, Europe's dark past has been very present for me, as I cycled this journey. It is the continent's darkest chapters, which inspired the human rights— including rights of refugees – which are now under attack by nationalist tendencies. I asked myself frequently how can we abandon lessons, we learned so painfully? As I have cycled through the different countries, the way in which countries interacted with the history of the Holocaust was an unexpected theme: it appeared to correlate with positive or protective discourse on diversity.
For example, at Terezin, The Czech government made the choice to commemorate the Christian victims more visibly than the Jews, who perished in large numbers and much more brutally. For example, non Jewish inmates were in over-crowded, inhumane cells, which nonetheless had wooden planks, and insufficient toilet and stove. In comparison, twice the number of Jews were forced into a similar cell with no beds, no toilets, and only one vent. They would sleep standing, pressed together for lack of space, and rotate slowly, so that everyone had a moment, where they could breath near the one vent the size of my palm. Suffocation was a nightly occurrence.
Yet, the cross hanging at Terezin, triple the size of the star of David, dominates the landscape, as one approaches. The star of David is hidden in the shadows. This implicit choice speaks of prioritization of a narrative of national victimhood. Contained in this choice is a rejection of the Jewish life as part of Czech life (many of the inmates were Czech Jews).
The latter struck me again in Tabor, another historic town I crossed in the Czech Republic; there, the Communists converted the local synagogue into a parking lot in the 1970s, because there were ‘only’ 200 hundred Jews left in Tabor, as my Czech couchsurfing host explained. After Nazi occupation, Tabor's Jews were transported to Terezin and then on towards the concentration camps further east. As I marveled at history razed to the ground, I wondered: isn't silence vis-à-vis past crimes a form of acquiescence?
Later on, as I discussed the Czech response to the refugee crisis, I started to ponder whether the narrative of national victimhood weakened an identification with the hard learned lessons from the Holocaust?
Terezin stayed with me, as I pedaled towards Prague, despite sunshine, beauty and castles.
The sights of Prague were something to behold: this must be one of the most beautiful old capitals of Europe. The historic city hardly needs an introduction: its beautiful buildings, famous bridges and figures of saints, its excellent beer and proud people all gave it worldwide fame. So much so, that I missed the days when I visited it in 1995, and I could walk the streets with a measurable number of enthusiastic tourists. Now I was glad to abandon the tourist maze in search of answers to the many questions on migration I had.
My amazing cousin joined me in Prague to cycle a week with me. It was her first bike tour. Little did we know that she was joining me for the toughest cycling of all my trip. Leaving the Elbe river, my cousin and I cycled into Moravia, into hills, which took hours to climb up, and deep forests, which muted sounds. On we cycled down through valleys, with streams, fields of flowers and agriculture, which hardly seemed to tame the country side.
In Prague, we had bought local cycling maps in hopes of planning an excellent route. Cycling without a detailed guide meant that we had to learn, how big a small town has to be in order to have any food, and what kind of markings distinguish a paved trail from a gravel road. Thus, came days in which we strained our physical limits. First day, for example, we only ate lunch at 5pm after 65 miles the hunger only made it more delicious!). We didn't arrive to Tabor, the historical Hussite town and our destination for the day until nightfall. Oh, were we grateful for our fabulous couchsurfing hosts, who despite the late hour made sure we were fed, warm, and had a good laugh before sleep. Their hospitality warmed our hearts.
Despite the learning pains, the sights were worth the long, meandering days: the gravel paths, which our wrists hated, also took us by gorgeous ruins of castles and dreamy ponds. While we cycled long, hot days, we passed streets, which were lined with fruit trees: apricots, plums, cherries, apples and pears all waiting to be picked. Always a tough choice, whether to break the rhythm of cycling for some fresh plums.
For long stretches, we were the sole cyclists: only insects and the piercing cries of birds of prey accompanied the sound of our wheels. Such an experience is hard to describe: a meditative trance, where the cyclist’s mind completely immerses into the nature. From Tabor, we cycled on towards Austrian border through the Moravian region. More hills, but a different forest: it was so thick that the light hardly reached the ground. Instead the moss grew on the trees, where the light hit the branches, giving them a golden glow.
On the Austrian border lies one of the most beautiful medieval old town I have yet visited, and which is still hidden from the tourist track: Slavonice. There, we warmed up after a cool night at a campsite, fueled up with delicious, cheap breakfast, and mentally prepared ourselves for another unknown route: through Austria, for which we didn't have bike maps, but we had much optimism.
Apologies for the long silence- I have been biking for five days now, and time for writing has been sparse. By the time I finish my 60 miles or so, there is a pyramid of needs: food, shower and coordinating my next stop. Thus, progress on analytical posts has been slow, but steady.
But worry not, I had fruitful discussions with experts in both Berlin and Dresden, and there will be two posts on the nuances of Germany’s approach to migration forthcoming – I promise
In the meantime, I wanted to give you an overview of the biking in Germany. Experienced as I am, this tour humbled me a little. Turns out, I don’t know the biking routes in Germany as well, and had a few bike fit mishaps, which caused pain and delay.
But all in all, it has been well worth it: once I reached the Elbe river, the closer to the Czech border I got, the more stunning the views became. The area is known as the Little Switzerland of Sachsen.
First, a little on the challenge of getting to the Elbe river. Once on the river, I knew I would be able to follow a well traversed and well demarcated bike path, which follows the river. So the challenge was how to get there. I chose to bike to Torgau, a beautiful medieval town that was the most direct path to the river.
Having biked from Amsterdam to Berlin two years ago, I was confident, I knew cycling in Germany: In the north, it’s cycling heaven: all streets are lined with bike paths, which are separated by a green strip, and every intersection has two directional signs, one for cars and one for bikes. The bike ones help cyclists find less traffic heavy, more scenic routes to the same destination. So, I presumed, one country, one biking standard. I had maps and a general sense that with the proper villages and cities lined up, I will find the bike paths with ease.
I happily left Berlin, snapping pictures of all the beautiful street art, and pedaling on towards the Mauerweg. The Mauerweg is the bike path that lines the path of the former wall- you can bike or walk the entire length of it. I make a point of biking part of it every time I am in Berlin. It never fails to move me. Along the way, there are memorials of those, who died, trying to cross East to West. I stop at each one and read their life story. From the Mauerweg, I quickly got to the crossing demarcating the former border of the East and West Germany.
:From then on, I happily pedaled through fields of corns and grains and into forests- just to have quite a surprise. Turns out, the south’s bike infrastructure is not quite as developed. There are still separated bike lanes along most routes, but they can also disappear. So it happened quite easily that I ended up on traffic heavy streets. In the attempt of getting off a narrow well traversed route with no shoulder, I turned to google cycling directions and ended up on a dirt path:
Turns out that google and I disagree on the standards of a bike path. Thus ensued one hour through roads that I swear only hunting folks use. Well, who says that you can’t ride a carbon road bike off-road? (Apart from any mechanic tending to my bike, and my unhappy seat bones, of course).
But those surprises aside, I finally did make it to Torgau. The ride there took me through beautiful corn fields, forests, and fields of sunflowers. Torgau itself is endearing: The charm of medieval towns never fails to move me, and I had the luck of staying in an ancient house too. Below some pictures of medieval buildings along the way.
Once on the Elbe river, it was a joy to make my way towards Dresden- the path is mostly well paved with occasional cobble stone around ancient towns. The ride would have been perfect, besides thunderstorms: At least half of my day was spend pedaling through the rain. Despite rain gear, my speed and my excitement markedly declined with the constant drizzle and spontaneous downpour. But at least there were sunflower fields to make me happy. And even that misery was temporary: after a long lunch break at a German Inn right at the river (the Matjes fillets, potatoes, and German strudel hit the spot), finally the sun! That made pedaling to Dresden past many beautiful sights and adorable animals.
Dresden was a welcome stop- I ended up staying longer than planned because of two reasons: an unfortunate stomach bug, and very sore seat bones. The latter was a cause of panic: experienced as I was, I never had that problem, and knew that the new saddle was to blame. But what to do? Buying a new saddle mid-tour is a risk, continuing was impossible. A conundrum.
So who to ask, when in need of expert opinion? Bike messengers! Luckily, I passed a bike messenger company, and they immediately send me to the right bike store in town. With much luck, I found Meissner Raeder. They listened to my touchy situation with care, and immediately brought out a plastic statue of the pelvic to show me exactly which pain can be caused by what saddle misfit. I would love to nerd out about what I learned through this lecture, but I presume bike design is not the interest of my readers. Suffice to say, for now, my tour and seat bones were temporarily saved by a new saddle designed by German doctors - German science and engineering combined.
The upside of an extra day resting meant, I got to see Dresden by night. It is truly the most beautiful town I visited at night. I ate dinner near the Frauenkirche, where two opera singing street artists brought tears to my eyes with the beauty of their voice. Everything happens for a reason, even the pains and delays.
The next day cycling brought me through gorgeous German little towns, like Pirna, and others, and the joy of taking little ferries across the river to see the towns and different views.
Approaching the Czech border was just breathtakingly beautiful. Mountains lining the river, ancient stone walls, dense forests and air smelling both crisp of the river and of pines. I highly recommend anyone to visit this area. Word of mouth is that it is hiking and rock climbing heaven. To date, this was the most picturesque part of the tour, and arriving to the Czech Republic only brought smiles.