Refugee Policy Is The Latest Battleground for German Democracy

 /  Nov. 30, 2020, 9:30 a.m.

Pro-Refugee Banner, Berlin, 2014.
Pro-Refugee Banner, Berlin, 2014.

Two Syrian defectors—Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib—applied to Germany for asylum in April. Unlike most Syrian refugees, Raslan and al-Gharib were complicit in the very conditions from which they sought refuge as longtime officials in Syria’s destructive political machinery. Raslan, a former commanding officer at a Syrian intelligence unit, faced charges of crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, rape, and fifty-eight murders, while al-Gharib faced charges of assistance to torture and murder on thirty counts.

Their war crimes trials are the first of a number of accounts exposing the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Although only these two men were charged in the trials, seventy prosecuting witnesses provided critical testimony of weathering torture, abuse, and brutal detention conditions under Assad’s rule. With these trials, the first steps to uncovering the full extent of the damages from the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 to the present-day are finally underway. 

Potential consequences of the trials include policy shifts in Germany, especially toward friendlier legislation for refugees. Prior to the trials, the interior ministers of the German federal states discussed the possibility of returning the refugees to Syria. Deportation is no longer seen as a politically viable option, and it is possible that softened attitudes toward refugees may contribute to friendlier asylum policies. 

The trials also coincide with changes in Germany’s cultural and political landscapes: the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been growing in political influence since 2015, when the first waves of Syrian refugees entered Germany for resettlement. AfD openly focuses on Islam and “invasion of foreigners” as its main policy platform, and holds a nationalist, anti-immigration political stance. As of 2020, the AfD is still a fringe party, although its power in German politics has considerably increased since its founding. 

Mainstream German politics are unlikely to change dramatically, as dominant political parties like Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are still haunted by Germany’s nationalist past. However, the German election is fast-approaching, and Merkel has announced that she will not be seeking re-election in 2021 as chancellor, Germany’s highest leadership position. Merkel has been chancellor since 2005, so her departure signals a massive political shift approaching. The relative power dynamics between Germany’s political parties is undergoing a sea-change: while the CDU experienced a decline in power from the 2013-2017 elections, the AfD nearly tripled in support within the same time span. While the 2020 trials show promise for adjusting public opinion toward refugees, the results of the 2021 election will likely determine the future of refugee policy in Germany. 

The Successes and Failures of the 2015 Refugee Crisis Policy

At the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, one phrase dominated the German mindset as Merkel adopted an open-borders policy that would lead to the resettlement of nearly 965,000 refugees: “Wir schaffen das,” or “We can do it.”

For a while, Germany lived up to this phrase. By the end of 2015, close to one million refugees arrived in Germany before border closures in southeastern Europe and a refugee deal with Turkey ultimately slowed refugee entry in March 2016. Germany alone resettled more refugees than twenty-seven EU countries combined—an impressive feat on its own, to say nothing of the work required to help integrate the newly resettled refugees. The government then pushed refugees through language acquisition and cultural integration courses, preparing them for a smooth transition to their new lives in Germany. 

Some refugees indeed emerged with new lives and stable careers. The government subsidized job programs to assist refugees in finding work, and within three years, 43 percent of working-age refugees were either in some kind of training program or were already working. Mohamed Rachid was one of these refugees. His story was profiled in The Los Angeles Times: having arrived in Germany at the age of sixteen with little understanding of his host country or the German language, Rachid is now fluent in German and interns at a Berlin barbershop. He is optimistic about the future, is hardworking, and hopes to save the money from his work to eventually open up a barbershop of his own. 

Rachid’s story is far from an anomaly, but wide-scale media attention to successes like his obscures lingering shortcomings in Germany's refugee integration process. For one, a number of German natives, particularly on the right, did not take well to the rapid resettlement of refugees: as dissent surged, so did anti-immigrant protests and instances of Islamophobic violence like the Hanau shootings. Critics of resettlement pointed to violent crimes committed by refugees, claiming that Merkel was “ruining Germany.” 

Right-wing dissent was only the beginning of a laundry list of problems. Integrating the refugees into the German job market was an ambitious task, despite government-sponsored language acquisition and cultural competency programs. Language schools, though in high demand, remained underfunded and many teachers were poorly qualified. Pass rates for the B1 standard on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages were below 60 percent, indicating that the classes were not sufficient in helping refugees gain a working knowledge of the German language. This further complicated job placement for asylees—with limited German language skills, it would be extremely difficult to operate in a German workplace. Today, barely half of refugees work skilled labor jobs; 189,000 are unemployed

Compounding the economic hurdles faced at the national level, local government bureaucracies, while proactive during the resettlement and education processes, were inefficient and experienced confusion with orders from Berlin. Germany’s decentralized system of states gives local officials large amounts of power over their respective territories—much like the American balance of power between states and the federal government—but issues regarding legal status for refugees are directed from the capital and are often unclear. For instance, failed asylum seekers were given “tolerated” status, meaning that while they had no right to be in Germany, they would not face immediate deportation. Such hazy legal designation hinders integration efforts: with limited options for movement within the country, the “tolerated” have limited access to jobs, and their children further carry that burden, as Germany has no birthright citizenship laws. 

Limited economic opportunity means that refugees have no choice but to rely on welfare: at the end of 2015, approximately 975,000 asylum-seekers were receiving welfare benefits in accordance with the Act on Benefits for Asylum Seekers. Since then, the number has declined: in 2018, approximately 411,000 asylum-seekers were on the welfare system. However, because the number of German citizens on welfare has declined steadily for a number of years, the refugee welfare system is frequently criticized by the AfD. The German government spent 21.7 and 21.3 billion euros on refugee assistance in 2016 and 2017 respectively, which seem like staggering numbers. However, contextualized within a federal budget surplus of 6.2 billion euros in 2016, in addition to the fact that this spending has acted like an economic stimulus package, the refugee assistance can hardly be considered irresponsible spending.

Germany as a whole has not suffered an economic burden as a direct effect of the influx of refugees. In fact, it has experienced substantial growth over several years, low unemployment, and federal budget surpluses. Over the long term, the difficulties of the refugee policy do not seem to have impacted Germany negatively from a macro view so much as it has upended the lives of individual asylum seekers in legal limbo.

Islamophobia and Dissatisfaction: The Rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)

Throughout refugee resettlement, Angela Merkel said “We can do it.” Meanwhile, Alexander Gauland, one of the leaders of the AfD, was saying “We don’t even want to do that.”

Founded in 2013, the AfD did not actually start out as an anti-immigrant, openly Islamophobic party. Instead, it was founded on a softer version of Euroscepticism that was generally supportive of German involvement in the European Union, but critical of German-funded bailouts of southern European states. When founding party leader Bernd Lucke quit his post in 2015 over Islamophobia, xenophobia, and pro-Russia sentiment within the party, Frauke Petry—far more right-wing than Lucke—took over, essentially marking the AfD’s shift to the far-right. Islamophobia and xenophobia became the primary characteristics of the AfD that we see today. 

Lucke’s resignation and the subsequent change in AfD’s platform coincided precisely with the refugee crisis. The massive influx of refugees marked a significant demographic change, causing unease amongst many Germans. Central to this unease was the idea that German culture is fundamentally opposed to the cultures of immigrants, a sentiment upon which the AfD swiftly capitalized. As Gauland said in an interview with The Atlantic, “Germans are losing control of their country.” Asked if a German way of life could survive with immigration, Gauland’s response was just as bleak: “No, it can’t.”

The AfD has markedly grown in influence since its founding: from barely five percent polling in the 2013 German federal election to 11 percent polling as of November. The AfD also won more than 20 percent of the vote in the eastern German state of Thuringia in 2019, and polled surprisingly well in Bavaria as well, remarkable feats for a party still largely regarded as fringe.

But interestingly enough, citizens’ compulsion to vote for the AfD did not arise from active approval of the party’s platform. Polls from German state television in 2017 reported that only 34 percent of voters for the AfD voted out of conviction; 60 percent voted out of a hatred for other parties. The AfD’s far-right, nationalist rhetoric—like many of its sibling parties in the rest of Europe— speak to dissatisfaction with the status quo writ large. In Germany’s case, the status quo is the result of nearly fifteen years of Merkel’s chancellorship, where Germany opened its borders, led the European Union through economic turmoil, and took charge in the refugee crisis, one of the largest humanitarian crises of the twenty-first century. 

Underlying this contrarian approach to mainstream politics is fear—generally, a fear of changes to a German society that once seemed familiar, but more specifically, a fear of Islam and ‘Islamization’. Many AfD voters were defectors from the CDU or the SPU, the two main political parties in Germany. Others had not voted at all until recently. Most are working- or lower-middle class. Regardless of differences between individual voters, they hold in common a belief that the refugees will eventually replace the German people, and that Merkel and the CDU have not done enough to answer the concerns of the real German people. Their response is to vote for the party that understands them—namely, the AfD. 

Islamophobia, the Mainstream, And An Election: Where is the Future for Refugee Policy?

As likely indicated by the ascent of the AfD, Germany is experiencing a rise in Islamophobia. Echoing Gauland, 44 percent of Germans stated that they see a “fundamental contradiction between Islam and German culture and values,” an alarming statement considering that Germany has experienced many instances of far-right extremist violence over the past several years.

The AfD has also gained more popular support (and mainstream recognition) over recent years, and the question of whether Germany will eventually return to the extreme fascist government of its past feels to many citizens more relevant now than ever before. Mainstream political parties have long been careful to avoid nationalism, personality-based political platforms, and demagoguery, echoes of twentieth century totalitarianism. 

But while the German state has remained vigilant against the dangers of nationalism, its average voting population has not. In fact, scholars of German nationalism argue that the antisemitism foundational to Nazism never died, but rather morphed to shift the guilt of the Holocaust onto German Jews who reminded Germany of its horrific past, upending the narrative of perpetrator and victim. An Anti-Defamation League poll about German antisemitism illustrates an unsettling reuslt of this displaced guilt, reporting that 42 percent of poll participants agreed with the statement that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” Nearly ninety years after the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, it seems that a significant proportion of German voters hold on to the desire to forget the warning signs of nationalism and authoritarianism.

Much is also uncertain about Germany’s immediate political future. The next election will be held in 2021, and Merkel’s successor within her party is still unknown; it will likely be decided in January of next year. Approval for Merkel in 2020 is high, with 82 percent of German adults saying that she has done a good job. If Merkel’s successor runs with her support and promises the continued successes of Merkel’s tenure, another CDU victory for chancellorship may be in view.

On the other hand, the AfD challenge cannot be dismissed so easily. While the CDU and its coalition partner, the SPD, both poll at higher rates than the AfD, polls provide only a snapshot in time—a snapshot that misses the AfD’s steady rise in power, and the greater share of power in the Bundestag, Germany’s national assembly, that goes along with it. 

Holding 91 out of 709 seats, the AfD are a growing force in the Bundestag. And though the AfD remains a minority party, they have already changed many of Berlin’s inner workings. Germany’s traditional parties wish to limit the AfD’s influence as much as possible, but have struggled to carry out any policies to counter the AfD due to fears that doing so might contribute to existing narratives of the AfD’s persecution. As a result, the AfD has pushed the limits of acceptable political discourse, from raising blatantly Islamophobic policies to decrying rule changes to Bundestag procedure of which they claim to be the victims. An increase in AfD seats in the Bundestag would clearly indicate the decline of normal political discourse, but more importantly, without a way of combating the harmful rhetoric of the AfD, the traditional political parties would have no alternative but to further cooperate with the party, normalizing a dangerous political shift to the right that could persist in the long term. 

Despite political inclinations toward nationalist policies and rhetoric, an openly discriminatory and hostile immigration and refugee policy is not currently well-received by most Germans. Adopting the rhetoric of a demagogue across the Atlantic, the AfD is continuing to develop its immigration program branding, calling for a “Germany First” stance: Germany is portrayed as a country overwhelmed by immigration, and is in need of a developmental policy that focuses on stabilizing North African countries in order to incentivize them to “take their people back.” Disregarding the irony in calling for a (likely, costly) developmental approach to foreign policy while decrying the costs of maintaining welfare for refugees, the softer rhetoric hides the original repulsive intent, and makes the AfD’s existing platform of far-right conservatism more socially acceptable. 

In the worst-case scenario, a far-right shift in refugee and immigration policy would be realized in closed borders, increased deportations, and a “zero-immigration” policy—a cap on immigration until deportations lead to net zero or net negative immigration. Reunification of immigrant and refugee families would be unheard of under a policy implementation heavily influenced by the AfD, and a sharp decrease in refugees or immigrants from Africa or the Middle East could reasonably be expected. These steps would indicate a 180-degree reversal from Merkel’s open-border policy of 2015, which, despite its flaws, was motivated by reasonably humane intent. An AfD-led policy likely would not guarantee even basic humaneness, especially given the AfD’s favorable view of deportations. While AfD leadership has not yet made any comment toward the Raslan and al-Gharib trials, it would be naïvely optimistic to expect that a party with an openly Islamophobic platform might have a sudden change of heart. 

This is not to say that these changes to immigration would take immediate effect under a Bundestag with a greater proportion of AfD seats. It is more likely that the changes to immigration and refugee policy, like other institutional norms, would be slow to take effect. The consequences of those changes, however, would have lasting damages on German democracy, showing that even a nation as careful as Germany can be swept in the tide of authoritarianism: the question remains whether it is still possible to reverse course.

This image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Montecruz Foto and can be found here.

Donna Son


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