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Welcome to Germany

Migration and the rise of the Far Right

Tuesday 25 May 2021, by siawi3

Source: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2021/04/29/welcome-to-germany/

Welcome to Germany

Thomas Rogers

Since Angela Merkel admitted 1.2 million refugees in 2015 and 2016, the dire predictions about their impact on the country have not materialized.

April 29, 2021 issue

Photo: Refugees in Berg am Starnberger See, Germany
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Refugees returning to their emergency tent shelter from a charity bazaar where they were given clothes, Berg am Starnberger See, Germany, 2015

Much of the international coverage of the refugee situation in Germany has focused not on the experiences of the migrants themselves but on the simultaneous rise of the far right in the country. The influx, many have argued, has been a direct cause of this development. Far-right extremism has indeed surged. In 2015 the official number of attacks on refugee housing registered by the Federal Criminal Police Office increased fivefold over the previous year’s, to more than one thousand. There have also been a number of high-profile attacks on pro-refugee politicians, including a knife attack on a Cologne mayoral candidate that severed her windpipe and the murder in 2019 of Walter Lübcke, a regional politician in Hesse, by a far-right extremist.

It’s true that the influx helped fuel the rapid growth of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded as a Euro-skeptic party in 2013 but drifted further toward the anti-immigrant far right after 2015. Its politicians have raced to outdo one another in venal, attention-grabbing rhetoric. In 2016 Beatrix von Storch, the party’s deputy chairperson, wrote on Facebook that German border guards should shoot women and children trying to illegally cross the border into the country. (She later backtracked, saying that only the women should be shot.) The party garnered a surprising 13 percent of the vote in the next year’s federal election, making it the biggest opposition party and the first far-right party to sit in the German parliament since 1961.

But the media’s focus on the AfD has overshadowed the continued support for migrants among ordinary Germans. Although the Willkommenskultur has faded from public view, it has not disappeared. A study by the Family Ministry from 2018 showed that one in five Germans helped the refugees in some capacity. Silke Radosh-Hinder, a pastor working with the Refugee Church, a religious organization helping migrants in Berlin, recently told me that many volunteers remained as committed as during the height of the influx: “I still know an incredible number of people who support and mentor refugees, and what I think has ebbed is the put-on aspect, where people want to be publicly recognized for helping people.”

In his wide-ranging 2019 history of migration in Germany, Das Neue Wir (The New Us), the German historian Jan Plamper argued that the past decade has been unfairly defined in the public eye by the rise of the far right: “In truth, during the 2010s, politics overall has grown polarized—both the left-wing and the right-wing extremes became stronger.” This development on the left, he writes, has coincided with the rise of a vocal and well-organized pro-refugee movement, largely organized by migrants themselves, that has laid the groundwork for a lasting social acceptance of migration. Willkommenskultur, he makes clear, was not a onetime event but part of a larger trend.

Reaus organization helping migrants in Berlin, recently told me that many volunteers remained as committed as during the height of the influx: “I still know an incredible number of people who support and mentor refugees, and what I think has ebbed is the put-on aspect, where people want to be publicly recognized for helping people.”

In his wide-ranging 2019 history of migration in Germany, Das Neue Wir (The New Us), the German historian Jan Plamper argued that the past decade has been unfairly defined in the public eye by the rise of the far right: “In truth, during the 2010s, politics overall has grown polarized—both the left-wing and the right-wing extremes became stronger.” This development on the left, he writes, has coincided with the rise of a vocal and well-organized pro-refugee movement, largely organized by migrants themselves, that has laid the groundwork for a lasting social acceptance of migration. Willkommenskultur, he makes clear, was not a onetime event but part of a larger trend.

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In 2014 Emad Kendakji’s hometown of Hama became a center of fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces, and he was terrified of being conscripted into the army. “I knew I had to fight or get out,” he recently told me. So, like many other Syrians, the twenty-eight-year-old law school graduate embarked on a perilous journey to Europe. He traveled across much of North Africa to Melilla, a Spanish territory on the Moroccan coast. The official at the Spanish refugee office, however, told him, “Just go to Germany. There is a better life and work there. We are poor.” He took the man’s advice and a few days later arrived in Düsseldorf.

Kendakji was part of the so-called refugee wave of 2015 and 2016, when more than two million migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Eritrea, among other countries, made their way to Europe within a span of months. Driven by a confluence of events including the war in Syria, fallout from the Arab Spring, and worsening conditions in refugee camps in the Middle East, the mass migration prompted a crisis in Europe. Many countries refused to bear the burden of housing and feeding the new arrivals, producing bitter disagreement among European Union member states. According to the Pew Research Center, ultimately about 45 percent of the refugees ended up in Germany, which took in over 1.2 million of them, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the country’s population.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow the migrants in was initially greeted with widespread praise. It seemed to encourage a vision of a new, inclusive Germany and a burgeoning moral superpower, bolstering Merkel’s reputation as the “leader of the free world.” But it also drew scorn and schadenfreude from right-wing populists, who argued that it would lead to Germany’s social and economic ruin. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán later said, “If I would pursue a refugee policy like the chancellor, the people would chase me out of office the same day.” Just before his inauguration in early 2017, President-elect Trump said it was a “catastrophic mistake” for Merkel to have taken in “all of those illegals.”

Now, more than five years after the refugee crisis, the apocalyptic predictions have not materialized. According to numbers released last summer, the migrants from that period have integrated faster than previous refugee influxes. Approximately half of them have jobs, and another 50,000 are taking part in apprenticeship programs. The federal education minister has stated that more than 10,000 are enrolled in university. Three quarters of them now live in their own apartment or house and feel “welcome” or “very welcome” in Germany. The financial cost to the German government of taking in the migrants—including housing, food, and education—is likely to be recovered, in taxes, earlier than many had predicted.

Read the full article in the New York Review.