Germany: The refugee crisis and a nation defined

Germany: The refugee crisis and a nation defined

Months into the European refugee crisis, Germany continues to grapple with an another defining moment in its history. GREG NICOLSON reflects on the issue, the influence of the Paris attacks, and the similarities with South Africa's own migrant challenges.

Hussein Rubai describes his journey from Baghdad. He is standing in the mud and rain by a network of fences outside Berlin’s state office for health and social services, known as the LaGeSo. A crowded, flooding boat trip for $1,200 from Turkey to Greece. Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, he lists, as others gather to hear the story. It took the 47-year-old and his son 10 days from Greece, four days on foot.

“From 2007 until today Baghdad wasn’t safe,” says Rubai, who after a brief interview has been coming to the Berlin refugee processing centre for 33 days waiting for his number to be called. “I hope for my children to get a better future, a solution to live in a safe place.”

Mahmoud Faisal, a 25-year-old Syrian from Kurdistan, interjects. He’s been coming to the centre for 10 days. He was caught by police five times trying to cross into Greece before bouncing between Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Norway and Austria. He was locked up for over a week in Bulgaria and hopes to play soccer and work in ceramic design in Germany.

The LaGeSo is central to Europe’s refugee crisis. Around 7,000 asylum seekers are still entering Germany every day, and the country is the main destination for those coming from countries like Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. It could receive up to 1.5 million asylum seekers this year. The LaGeSo is Berlin’s main refugee processing centre, and for a rich nation known for efficiency, the waiting crowds, the dismal rain and mud, it symbolises the crisis, the inability to cope with the migrants, but there are also volunteers handing out coffee, providing health services and clothing for those new to the cold.

If you have been following the migrant’s march to Germany, you’ve probably seen an image of the LaGeSo. In Germany, it’s impossible to ignore it. There’s no equivalent in South Africa to the focus the German media’s given to the issue of asylum seekers. Think of the Oscar Pistorius trial added to the Nkandla scandal multiplied by the attention on elections.

It is about what Germany is, and what it might be. It is about German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. After 10 years as leader she is going through a defining moment since she announced that refugees would be welcomed. The country would not build any fences or close any of its European Union (EU) borders. It wouldn’t implement special transit zones for refugees, and there was no maximum limit on its obligations to accept asylum seekers, she said. But Merkel is under pressure within her own conservative party, and her support in the polls have significantly fallen.

It is about the realities of what Germany can do. The country previously expected around 300,000 asylum seeker applications this year, and the last time it saw such a spike in migration was in 1992 when Yugoslavia was breaking up, and over 400,000 people fled to the country. Asylum seekers need to be processed, housed, fed and clothed as their applications are pending, and even a country like Germany, with impressive public infrastructure, a strong economy, and the mobilisation of different state departments, has struggled to deal with over a million asylum seekers.

It is also about the European Union response; the future of the EU might be at stake. In the past, Germany has largely been protected from mass asylum seeker applications because refugees are required to register and apply in the countries where they first arrive. Once countries like Greece started allowing migrants to pass through on their way to Germany that is when the country’s “crisis” began. If Germany closes its borders, it is a serious blow to European integration. While it has little influence on ending what is happening in places like Syria, its only option now is to support the fringe states in the EU and outside, offering deals to Turkey, a major transit zone, and pushing for greater policing of the region’s borders. This would help take the challenges further away from Germany, to insulate itself from the continued flow of migrants. Inside the EU the plan is to redistribute the refugees between the countries, which has failed so far, raising questions of EU members’ appetite for unity in times of crisis.

Whether the country will cope is fodder for conservatives and right-wingers. Everyone is happy there have not been riots and attacks on foreigners on the level seen when Yugoslavian migrants were coming, but there have been rallies against accepting asylum seekers and attacks on places where they are supposed to stay. Many Germans have been gracious in accepting the migrants, but Merkel’s open acceptance, and the fear of a never-ending stream of people coming across the borders, could push her away from her stance.

Twenty-five years after reunification between East and West, with memories of the atrocities against minorities during World War II still present, the current refugee crisis presents a serious question of identity. Does Germany see itself as a multicultural or republican state? The recent terrorist attacks in Paris could be a key determiner, both in Germany and the EU. Immediately those who were worried about the influx of Islamic migrants to Christian states and those who have derided the “chaos” of allowing largely unchecked migrants into the EU and Germany, used the attacks on Paris to further calls for quotas or upper limits on asylum seekers.

The German ambassador to South Africa, Walter Lindner, is fresh from a trip home where he went to see the refugee reception centres in Berlin for himself. Chancellor Merkel and President Jacob Zuma both pointed out that we should not mix the issues of refugees and terrorist attacks, he says, refugees often being the victims of such attacks.

“We just don’t know, we don’t have concrete figures,” he says on the potential of attackers coming in on refugee routes.

“It’s a global issue, it’s not only a German issue or an EU issue, it is a global issue. Now the terrorism issue is one fragment of this whole thing but it should not be mixed and we should really do everything to avoid the stigmatisation of the refugees. They are not terrorists. There might be some amongst them, but the great majority is not,” says Lindner, now back to his Pretoria office.

When Lindner went to two asylum seeker reception centres recently he said he found them well organised. “I didn’t see any xenophobic manifestation,” he says of his short visits. “I think the only thing now people want to know is: for how long, how many. This is the discussion in the German parliament, within the parties.”

Before his trip to Germany, Lindner thought about the similarities in migration between South Africa and Germany. “We both have this pull factor. We both have a more attractive economy than the surrounding countries, South Africa as well. Then, what Germany and South Africa also unites [them] is we both have a dark chapter in history: apartheid where the lesson learned was we have to take in people in need. In Germany, with the holocaust, without comparing this too much, as well the legacy is we can’t see tens of thousands of people walking on the autobahn without any home. We have to open the doors and take them. Then you have problems of border control,” says Lindner.

Listening to the stories at the LaGeSo, it is impossible not to see the similarities with South Africa. While South Africa’s xenophobic attacks did not get quite the attention of the European migrant crisis, it is clear both stories highlight migrants and refugees as a key issue for 2015 and the future.

“I think this migration and huge influxes of immigrants is a phenomenon that’s here to stay. I don’t think the wars and civil wars will get less intense,” says Lindner. “Maybe we are lucky in the Vienna negotiations on Syria, but it takes time. In Afghanistan, for 30 years people tried to do something and in Eritrea and other countries it all takes time. That’s why we have to find a broader consensus on what to do… I hope now that terrorism is not overshadowing it too much that people now only talk about terrorism – the migration is still there.”

For Germany, and South Africa, in part, how asylum seekers are treated, whether they are accepted and provided for, the minutia of policy action and public sentiment, will define the country’s place in the world. It is about how we see others, like Hussein Rubai, Mahmoud Faisal, Afghanistan and Syria. But more importantly, it is about how we see ourselves. DM

Photo: Refugees wait in cold temperatures for registration and the allocation of sleeping places at the State Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo) in Berlin, Germany, 14 October 2015. EPA/KAY NIETFELD.


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