'Mother of the outcasts': Why Germany changed its tune on refugees

Why the normally stolid, pragmatic Angela Merkel threw open Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees

(Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

(Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

It was barely two months ago that German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a sobbing Palestinian girl whose family faced the threat of deportation that Germany cannot help everyone. And then, it seemed, Germany would try—at least when those needing help were among the nearly eight million who have fled the civil war in Syria.

In late August, Germany announced it was temporarily suspending the European Union’s Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees. The Dublin Regulation requires that refugees apply for asylum in the EU country in which they arrive—meaning that a refugee who comes to Germany via another EU country risks deportation. Suspending this regulation for Syrians removed that risk.

Combined with the lack of border controls among EU countries, this resulted in a flood of Syrian refugees coming to Germany through Hungary and Austria. On Saturday, German police said more than 12,000 refugees streamed into Munich’s main train station. More than 450,000 have already arrived this year, and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has said that figure could reach one million by year’s end.

Germany’s openness stands in stark contrast to almost everywhere else in the world outside the Middle East, where countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have absorbed the brunt of Syria’s exodus. Sweden accepted 80,000 refugees last year and expects to do the same this year. But in most of the West, including Canada, the numbers governments are willing to take in are far lower.

The German population has largely embraced its country’s image as a haven for those fleeing conflict, turmoil and poverty. Crowds have greeted refugees at train stations, clapping and cheering, handing out food and offering translation services.

Many Syrians want to go to Germany because they have relatives there, and because the economy is doing better than it is in other EU countries. But the warm welcome, official and from ordinary Germans, has also greatly burnished the country’s image among Syrians and other refugees. And it has transformed Merkel—respected by Germans but hardly revered—into a kind of folk hero for many refugees. Some sport T-shirts with her face emblazoned on it. At least one Arabic song praising Merkel has made the rounds on social media.

Josef Janning, co-director and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, cautions that some of the hagiography surrounding Germany and Merkel has been spread by people-smugglers who need potential refugees to believe getting to Germany is worth the risk and cost.

And it appears Germany’s capacity to take in ever-increasing numbers of refugees has reached its limit, at least for the time being. On Sunday, Berlin ordered border restrictions that stopped train travel from Austria and allowed for spot checks of cars entering the country. (Normally the border between Austria and Germany is open.) Refugees who had boarded Germany-bound trains in Austria were reportedly taken off and diverted to a nearby garage.

But even with these measures—which are said to be temporary—the degree to which Germany has opened its doors, and Germans their hearts, is unique in Europe and North America.

What is it about Germans that has motivated this hospitality? And why has Merkel, a woman known for stolid governance, assumed the role of champion for the desperate and homeless whom so many of her fellow Europeans would rather turn away? The answer has as much to do with the economy and politics as it does altruism.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, this close connection with universal civil rights . . . will be destroyed. And it won’t be the Europe we want,” Merkel said at a news conference last week.

It was, in many ways, an atypical statement from the chancellor. Merkel is a pragmatist who succeeds because she makes Germans feel safe. “She is not known for making big philosophical statements or speeches,” says Judy Dempsey, editor of Carnegie Europe’s Strategic Europe blog.

But Merkel also has a good sense of the German popular mood. “She does not like to be out in front leading people somewhere they are not ready to go. But she is very smart in sensing when people are on the move or are ready to move, and then to become a part of it,” says Janning.

This has allowed Merkel to pivot on contentious issues in the past. Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, and anti-nuclear protests in Germany, Merkel, who was previously a strong backer of nuclear energy, announced Germany would shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022, more than a decade ahead of schedule.

This summer, it seems Merkel similarly judged a shift in German public opinion and responded accordingly. “From a position of waiting, she moved into a position of seeming to lead it,” says Janning.

History plays a role in Germans’ openness to refugees. During the Second World War, Germany was responsible for ethnic cleansing and the mass displacement of populations. But it also absorbed millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States during the final stages of the war and its aftermath.

“The history that provokes a guilt reaction is important, but also the history of having been the subject of mass uprooting must play some role in that reaction on a popular level,” says Phil Triadafilopoulos, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

West Germany also imported millions of so-called guest workers, mostly from southern Europe and especially from Turkey, from the 1950s onwards. Though intended as a temporary measure, many guest workers stayed and brought their families with them. Today, some 20 per cent of Germans come from a migrant background, and there is a large population of ethnic Turks.

Guest workers did not smoothly integrate into German society, says Triadafilopoulos. Migrants and even their children tend to have lower rates of employment and levels of education, he says. But the long-running influx of foreigners into Germany—including a wave of refugees from the Balkans during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, who have mostly returned—has gradually changed Germans’ perceptions about their national identity.

“If you live in Germany, and if you live in urban Germany, the fact that you live in a diverse immigration society is undeniable. So now, the prevailing popular opinion, not on the fringes either way, is one of general acceptance,” says Triadafilopoulos.

The acceptance isn’t total. According to Spiegel Online International, there have been at least 27 arson attacks on asylum hostels since 2012. Nevertheless, the evolution in German public opinion has been “extraordinary,” says Dempsey.

This goes a long way toward explaining Merkel’s relative hospitality toward refugees seeking a home in her country. She sees the issue’s popular appeal, and as Triadafilopoulos points out, her Christian Democratic Union party has to make inroads with voters of a migrant background. A grand gesture of welcome may be a populist political tactic. But there’s more to it than that.

Germany’s population is aging and risks shrinking. According to some predictions, it may drop by almost 20 per cent over the next 45 years. German industry has been vocal about the need for new workers, says Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. “People realized, ‘Oh, if these companies we love like BMW and Mercedes can’t build our fancy cars anymore, we better go for immigration.’”

Gabriel, the vice-chancellor and also economy minister, said as much in an address to parliament last week: “If we manage to quickly train those that come to us and to get them into work, they we will solve one of the biggest problems for the economic future of our country: the skills shortage.”

Accepting large numbers of migrants also puts Germany in a much stronger bargaining position when trying to convince other members of the European Union to accept quotas in a relocation scheme that would see refugees distributed throughout Europe.

“The fact that Germany is now in the same boat as Italy [a country that large numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean reach first] has significantly altered the scales of this debate and has helped to at least potentially bring about a majority coalition in the European Union to decide on a new policy approach,” says Janning.

Talks between EU countries aimed at reaching an agreement on sharing refugees have so far been unsuccessful. And if a deal is reached, other EU counties will not be expected to absorb anywhere near the number of refugees as has Germany. Merkel may have overestimated the influence Germany’s example would have on its less receptive neighbours. But here, too, we see the chancellor’s pragmatism at work.

Merkel is likely to open Germany’s doors again, but only to the extent she feels Germany can handle the influx, and that she can weather any resulting political fallout. At least one Arabic-language Facebook page describes Merkel as “Mother of the outcasts.” She may be, but to stretch the metaphor, she is also a mother who looks after the interests of her own children, and herself, first.