In Germany, the so called ‘flüchtlingskrise’ (refugee crisis) is well and truly still in full swing. For a while in Australia, our screens were filled every night with images of refugees on their way to Germany, walking the majority of the marathon journey from Greece to Munich. These kinds of pictures appear far less frequently nowadays, which might lead one to believe that things have calmed down; but they most certainly have not. Apart from the continuing mass influx of people, there came on New Year’s Eve the shocking news that 1016 women had been sexually harassed in Cologne. Adding to the controversy of such an event came also the news that these attacks were carried out by a large group of Arab/North African migrants. Many politicians latch on to such stories to demonstrate the danger of such a large intake of refugees and the strain it places on screening and application processes, and such events as portrayed in the media do not bode well for the reputation of incoming refugees. To complicate matters even further, the governing party in the German state of Bavaria – where most of the refugees arrive – is the Christian Social Union (CSU), a relatively conservative political group whose opinions on the issue fly right in the face of Angela Merkel’s hitherto ‘open door’ policy.
For the past five weeks, I have been staying in the German village of Kaufugen, which is close to a city called Kassel in the centre of Germany. I’ve seen what most definitely were recently arrived refugees, I’ve seen what most definitely were economic migrants, and I’ve had the chance to talk to many Germans about the issue. The opinions are as varied as they are numerous, but one aspect which did strike me was that most of the voices seem to have become gradually more negative as time goes on. Every day in the local newspaper or in the Spiegel-Online news app, the coverage is relentless. A day hasn’t gone by yet where a report on refugees, their integration into German society, or the problems arising from their arrival wasn’t front page or inside cover news. For the first time in a long time, many Germans are beginning to question their leader Merkel, who until the refugee issue turned sour had seemed as strong as ever. Thus, as an Aussie who will live abroad for the next twelve months on exchange, I thought it would be fitting to present an outsider’s perspective on a deeply German issue.
The first important step in breaking down this complex topic into understandable chunks is to debunk some of the stereotypes we may have of the Germans. There is no doubt that Germany – like so many other liberal western democracies – has developed a reputation as a welcoming nation for refugees. But aspects such as religion and population distribution don’t always occur to foreigners straight away, yet they are perhaps the most important. The majority of Germans still live in village communities, where religion plays a much more significant role in day to day life. Every 15 minutes, the church bells ring to remind you of the time; an old but important tradition which becomes even more important on Sunday when almost all shops are closed. Moreover, the governing party of which Merkel is the leader of is called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and many members of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) retain Judeo-Christian values, like their centre right counterparts in the CDU. For the most part, this has actually worked to the benefit of the refugees, as values such as tolerance and generosity have prevailed, but where it becomes less beneficial is when some refugees don’t integrate into society as much as they could or retain values incompatible with modern day Germans.
Most Melbournians studying at Monash would generally have two stereotypes of the German people: either a Bavarian in Lederhosen drinking beer with Aussies at the Oktoberfest or a hipster in Doc Martens and leather jacket dancing to techno in a Berlin nightclub. The image of a church-going village person is not always at the forefront of our minds, but it is crucial to consider this given that these refugees hail from equally as strong religious backgrounds, except that they are Muslim and not Christian. Over the past few weeks, these stereotypes have dissolved before my own eyes to reveal a much more complicated religious and cultural landscape. It’s not as if Germany hasn’t experienced migration from Muslim countries before. Many Turkish people arrived here in the 50s and 60s as ‘guest workers’, but never left and now form the base of what is Germany’s Muslim community. But the wave of migrants seen last year and which continues to come is on a completely different scale. Moreover, the Germans have never considered themselves a country of immigrants like Australia, America or Canada, so it is harder for many of them to grasp such a drastic demographic change. In Melbourne, one is just as likely to hear Mandarin on the tram as English; but if you heard a woman in traditional Muslim hijab and dress talking to a child in Arabic whilst walking in front of a 1000-year-old church, it would be hard to ignore the vast cultural difference.
And if there is one sentiment which all Germans appear to echo, it is that Merkel reacted much too late to the crisis. For a while, she was portrayed as the heroine for refugees coming to Europe. But once any country accepts 1.2 million asylum seekers in a calendar year, it becomes hard to keep up with the sheer scale of processing demanded for every application. While this is carried out most refugees are stuck waiting in limbo. Such uncertainty is not exactly conducive to integration into German society and alienates refugees from their possible home to be. Unfortunately, when such atrocious events such as those in Cologne do occur it only serves to cast all refugees in a bad light – and I predict – weaken their self-image. Xenophobia might be on the rise here, but I think that it is a result of Germany’s frustration with policy makers rather than an innate form of racism. In the end I think Germany will catch up with processing the backlog of applications, toughen some rules to counter purely economic migration, and will slowly learn how to integrate such a vast number of refugees, but perhaps Merkel was naïve in maintaining an open door policy for so long. The consequences are felt by the German people and the refugees alike. The Germans want to get on with their lives and the refugees are trying to escape war and persecution, but as long as so many barriers to integration remain, these goals cannot be easily achieved.