Two years after Angela Merkel opened her country’s borders to asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Europe remains in crisis mode. Despite recent victories for centrist politicians such as Emmanuel Macron in France and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, right-wing parties and candidates have made significant gains and anti-immigrant sentiment remains widespread. European citizens rank immigration as their greatest concern, and politicians, including those on the left and centre, wring their hands over how to stop people from coming to the continent. After two weeks in Germany, however – the epicentre of the “crisis” – I am left wondering what all the fuss is really about.
The northern city of Hamburg is the country’s second-largest, a gleaming testament to the prosperity that Germany has enjoyed in recent decades. Towering glass structures rise from the water’s edge as cargo ships glide into the busy harbour. The Elbphilharmonie, a gigantic new concert hall which opened just two months ago, is emblematic of the city’s wealth and confidence – indeed, the region of Hamburg is the richest in the European Union. The streets are practically papered with fresh money.
Meanwhile, a 40-minute drive through rolling green fields brings you to the Hamburg Welcome Centre. Here, the contrast could not be starker. Converted shipping containers, painted grey, blend with the cold winter sky. The name of the place is, of course, a euphemism – it is in fact a refugee camp, set up to accommodate those who arrive in the country primarily from Afghanistan and Syria. We are led to a room that smells faintly of disinfectant, with a large “wanted” poster stuck to the door outside. We sip our coffee uneasily as Olav Stolze, the director of the facility, explains to us how it works.
Stolze and the rest of his team speak in careful understatements. The janitors are called “technical staff” and the asylum seekers “residents”, as if it were a retirement village. Simeon Rehr, the director of accommodation, assures us that the residents can leave at any time – they simply have to check out when they do. The truth, of course, is that they must return within three days before a search is initiated. Fifteen security officers are on duty at any given time, comprising about half of the facility’s staff. A dark green metal fence surrounds the building, out of place in the German countryside.
One of the residents tells us that the Hamburg camp is the best in Germany, with friendly staff and good facilities. It has a capacity of 920 people, but at present houses only 560. Many of the staff are volunteers working for a Christian organisation called Malteser, and residents of nearby towns have donated bicycles which a group of children are learning to ride as we arrive. These are kind people, and their work is appreciated by those they help. But the fact remains that it is a refugee camp, and no euphemism is sufficient to hide this.
Upon their arrival, asylum seekers are distributed among the country’s various regions by the German federal government. At its peak in 2015, net migration to Germany reached just over one million people, of whom 476,649 sought asylum. Numbers have since dropped, as the German government – which initially took the progressive step of opening its borders – later made a policy U-turn. While the number of asylum-seekers almost halved last year to about 280,000, there is still a significant backlog of applications to be processed. Although camps like this one were intended to provide temporary housing for six to 10 weeks, the average stay is 12 to 15 months.
If descriptions of the camp are euphemistic, the reaction of many in the German public to migration has been rather exaggerated. Listening to politicians from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a new right-wing party whose support is growing rapidly, one would be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse is upon us. Even more moderate voices in the media and in Merkel’s centrist ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), refer to the “crisis” that has rocked the country. Across the political spectrum, whether hostile or compassionate towards recent arrivals (as many certainly are), Germans speak of migration as a mass influx, an existential crisis. Academic conferences on the issue have mushroomed, NGOs have proliferated, and migration has rooted itself firmly and undeniably at the centre of public discourse.
It is easy to get caught up in the hysteria. But is it justified? Ahmet Edis, deputy director of the Cologne Municipal Integration Council, thinks not.
“It is true that the number of arrivals has increased,” he says, “but that is not the whole truth.”
With an overall population of 82-million people, refugees and asylum seekers still represent only a small proportion of German society – roughly 1%. Compare this to a country like Jordan, which has borne the greater brunt of the Syrian crisis, and where refugees now comprise over 40% of the population. According to the federal quota system which allocates people between the regions, Cologne – Germany’s fourth-largest city with a population of over one million – has received just 13,000 refugees, a number which barely registers in the grand scheme of things. In fact, the influx of migrants to Germany in the past three years remains lower than previous waves of immigration to the country, such as the so-called “guest workers” who arrived from southern Europe and Turkey between 1955 and the early 1970s and the many refugees who fled the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The rhetoric of right-wing politicians, however, suggests that contemporary migration to the country is entirely without precedent, a new burden which Germany simply cannot sustain.
Edis acknowledges that there are challenges to integration in the city, but insists that there is space for migrants and that they can in fact contribute positively to the economy. His sentiment is echoed by Toufic El Masri of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, which is leading an initiative to assist migrants with the process of starting a business. The chamber estimates that Hamburg has a shortage in labour supply of approximately 50,000 people and growing. This is the case across Germany, where the population is ageing rapidly as fertility declines and life expectancy rises. Meanwhile, 44% of migrants who entered the country in 2016 were aged 16-29, exactly the age bracket which the economy currently lacks (and will need in order to continue to grow).
The truth is that the “European migration crisis” is not a crisis at all. The number of people who have arrived on the continent is indeed far greater than in previous years, but still lower than in many other regions of the world. In 2015, the European Union as a whole received 1.3-million asylum seekers – in the same period, sub-Saharan Africa recorded 4.4-million. Refugees today comprise just 0.4% of the EU population, down from 0.5% in the 1990s. Indeed, the number of migrants as a proportion of the total world population has remained remarkably consistent since 1960, at about 3%. The majority of these remain in countries in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Yet less attention is focused on the latter, or on the situation in heavily overburdened states like Lebanon and Jordan. Unlike these states, however, Germany has the capacity to receive and cater for many more migrants and refugees than it currently does – a fact to which rows of empty beds in the Hamburg Welcome Centre attest. Indeed, the country will need many more young people of working age simply to restore its demographic balance. A plethora of empirical studies has found no evidence that migration creates a welfare burden or causes job losses and wage decreases – rather, the average migrant contributes several thousand euros in revenues for the federal government. Most new arrivals are either highly skilled or lack skills completely, and – as most of the existing German labour force lies somewhere in-between – they fill critical gaps in the market.
It is almost absurd that wealthy and middle-class Germans, living in an advanced welfare state where unemployment benefits alone can total €800 per month, complain about the “burden” of migrants whose own lives are characterised by unimaginable trauma and tragedy. That many Germans feel comfortable with locking these people out is indicative of a critical lack of empathy, an inability to make relative comparisons of their and others’ circumstances. It is also undoubtedly a product of a particular ethnocentric view of the world, in which migrants from predominantly Muslim countries are the “other”, viewed as both socially inferior and culturally threatening.
Clearly, the moral and economic arguments in favour of migration to Europe are easily won. The political argument, on the other hand, is not. While many Europeans (Germans included) see the importance of welcoming people to their countries, especially those fleeing conflict and disaster, many others refuse to accept this. Instead, they view migration as a threat – a threat to their jobs, their families and their national identities. As a result, in 2016 there were approximately 10 attacks on migrants in Germany every day. It is difficult, of course, to penetrate the visceral fear and hatred that drives these attacks with rational argument and statistics. The real challenge is to communicate the truth about migration in an intuitive way, and not to succumb to fear-mongering and hyperbole.
Colonial rule by European powers wreaked havoc on countries in Africa and the Middle East, where poverty and conflict now seem like permanent conditions. Walking through quiet Hamburg, an indirect beneficiary of this legacy, one wonders where exactly the “crisis” might be. Germany, like other European states, would do well to see migration as an economic opportunity, not an existential threat, and to provide shelter to refugees as a duty, not a favour.
The rest of the world, as always, has bigger problems. DM
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