For Germany's refugees, home is still where the heart is

by Cathrin Schaer / 22 November, 2017
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A baby cries as Syrian refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

Even those forced to leave their country by war would rather return than live under bureaucratic hosts. 

The young man standing on the corner of a main road in central Berlin looks around knowingly. “It’s like the Middle East down here,” he says dismissively. He should know: he’s Syrian. On this side of Sonnenallee, in the suburb of Neukölln, outdoor tables are filled with men drinking small glasses of sugary black tea and smoking shisha. Women in headscarves and long coats, with children in tow and carrying bags of shopping, weave around skinny boys in white aprons zealously guarding boxes of fruit outside grocery stores.

This corner of the city has changed a lot in three years, and sometimes you can see why locals might find it a little intimidating: it does feel like a different country. Germany is two years on from the so-called refugee crisis of the summer of 2015, the year that the country’s leader, Angela Merkel, said those now-controversial words: “We can do this.” The German Chancellor was referring to a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa all trying to make their way to a better life in northern Europe.

The change that has taken place since goes further than the increasingly exotic nature of a block of Berlin shops. Germany’s much-vaunted humanitarian gesture has had repercussions. The country now hosts more refugees than any other European state; from January 2015 to June this year, more than 1.3 million people filed asylum applications in Germany, most from Syria, followed by Afghans and Iraqis.

The end of Ramadan in Neukölln, Berlin, in 2016. Photo/Getty Images

The end of Ramadan in Neukölln, Berlin, in 2016. Photo/Getty Images

Syrians are the most likely to have their asylum applications granted, although the proportions change in line with attitudes. A series of calamities, including mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 and a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market last December, have coloured local perceptions. “This isn’t what I donated my old winter coat for,” one bitter Cologne local complained on a message board after the city’s attacks.

Those events also fuelled the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. A minor party, the AfD started off as a voice for Euro-sceptics but didn’t get far with voters until it started yelling anti-immigration slogans. Critics might describe its supporters as Nazis but they were rewarded for their rabble-rousing ways with 12.6% of the vote in this year’s federal elections, reflecting mounting concern about immigration.

An AfD poster that says “New Germans? We can make them ourselves”. Photo/Getty Images

The German Government has also toughened its stance, entering into agreements that allow countries such as Turkey to corral refugees on the outskirts of Europe: numbers applying for asylum in Germany have plummeted, partially as a result of this, but it’s a move that’s also been heavily criticised.

“Well, sure, if you basically break the refugee convention, if you establish a militarised border zone, if you lock up people on Greek islands, you can bring the numbers down,” Patrick Kingsley, author of The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis, told the Listener. But people will keep coming, warns the British journalist, who reports on immigration for the New York Times.

Angela Merkel. Photo/Getty Images

Over the past two years in Europe, immigration has become political dynamite. The issue was a major reason many Britons voted to leave the European Union, an Ipsos Mori study found. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France and the right-wing People’s Party and Freedom Party in Austria all benefited from the same sorts of worries. Some might even argue that immigration has changed the course of the continent. After all, in her party’s weakened state, how will Merkel push for further European integration?

“Far-right leaders are correct that immigration creates problems,” wrote Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of Go Back to Where You Came From, in the New York Times in October. “What they miss is that they are the primary problem. The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside, who are exploiting fear of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal.”

A memorial to the 12 people killed when a truck drove into a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016. Photo/Getty Images

Something new to worry about

Immigration is a relatively new concern for Germany. From 1998 until 2013, Germans were most worried about unemployment. But this year, when Berlin-based election analysis and polling company Infratest dimap asked what was “the most important political problem that must be solved, before all other problems?”, about 44% of respondents chose immigration.

A further poll for a Bavarian media network sheds light on exactly what aspect of immigration Germans are worried about. Just over half thought the Government should be reducing the numbers of migrants able to enter the country. However, almost 70% of respondents believed “integration” was far more critical.

Integration is also a problem for the new arrivals. “We came from war,” my Syrian friend Majid (not his real name), in his early thirties, told me, “but we did not know about all the German rules.” He’s laughing as he says this. But he has already been waiting two months for the single piece of paper that will allow him to pay his rent in our flat. Before coming to Germany, Majid had been fighting in Aleppo; after months in the rubble of his hometown, he arrived in Germany in 2015.

Syrian refugees in Hungary en route to Germany. Photo/Getty Images

Syrian refugees in Hungary en route to Germany. Photo/Getty Images

We don’t have a common language so it is almost impossible to ask the kinds of direct questions a journalist might want to pose. Delicate subjects such as: why did you finally decide to leave Syria? How was your journey to Europe? Did you lose anyone in Aleppo? Did you kill anyone?

From the little we have discussed, mostly via mutual Arabic-speaking friends, it turns out being in Germany has been tougher than expected for Majid and many others like him.

He has what’s known as “subsidiary protection”, a status just below regular asylum that allows individuals to stay in Germany but makes it more difficult for them to gain permanent residency or bring family members over. It has become increasingly popular as local politicians have soured on immigration. In 2015, subsidiary protection was almost never granted; in 2016, 22.1% of cases were.

Cologne sexual harassment protesters. Photo/Getty Images

Soft-spoken, considerate and funny, Majid explains that although he was very grateful to Germany, he would rather have returned home to face the Syrian military than live the oddly undignified life of a refugee in Germany, ruled by the whims of bad-tempered civil servants. He was struggling to deal with the rules, crowded housing, powerlessness, lack of privacy, boredom and endless waiting.

Majid and two friends had attempted to go back to Syria, but they were stopped in Turkey and forced to return to Berlin. Now, he spends most days in a small room in our flat, chatting to friends on Skype and watching movies and YouTube videos on a borrowed computer. He cooks budget-conscious stews with aubergine and mince that he eats over several days.

As soon as local bureaucrats send him  the document he needs, he can sign up for a German language class and a now-compulsory integration course. They’re another recent sop to the anti-immigration brigade, and they come with a message: “Be a good chap, assimilate, and we’ll let you stay.”

We worry about Majid as though he was our son. And we want to ask him the kinds of questions his relatives might. Everyday things like: did you shower today? Don’t you want to get some fresh air? Have you eaten vegetables lately? How do you feel? And what are you going to do with your life now that you are stuck here in Germany and have no choice but to start all over again?

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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