Special Series: Fast Forward
Portraits from the Refuge
By Alexa Dvorson
Once it was clear the number of refugees arriving in Germany would top one million, reactions varied dramatically. Months later, a divided society is still debating its role as a refuge for the second time since the end of the cold war.
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In a country that’s never seen itself as a land of immigration, it’s a difficult conversation, and the range of responses to the refugee influx has been bewildering. While some Germans set up websites to match newcomers with locals willing to house them, right-wing gangs set fire to buildings intended to serve as temporary shelters for asylum seekers.
The tradition of Monday night demonstrations that helped bring about East Germany’s collapse has morphed into a series of weekly marches, decrying what some refer to as the “Islamization of Europe.”
At the same time, pensioners and students volunteer to teach German in “welcome classes,” and untold numbers of citizens have donated toys, clothing and other gifts to refugee centers around the country.
When the migration crisis began, polls indicated a majority of Germans backed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. Merkel’s declaration wir schaffen das — loosely translated as “we can do this” — summed it up. Demographers reminded Germans that their low birthrate makes immigration an imperative, and that Germany needs refugees to boost its workforce.
Activists suggested the country could learn from past integration missteps and turn the current challenge into a mutually beneficial opportunity.
Then the ground shifted. A lack of coordination in handling daily arrivals at refugee processing centers advanced perceptions that Germany was unable to cope with the influx. Terror attacks in Europe led many to wonder whom they’d actually allowed into their country. In the center of Cologne, New Year’s Eve assaults on women, largely blamed on migrants from North Africa, led to greater mistrust and ambivalence about Germany’s well-meant intentions.
Discord erupted even among Chancellor Merkel’s conservative allies, who urged her to reduce refugee numbers. That pressure was ramped up by big gains for the new far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in regional elections. The party’s new manifesto includes a vehemently anti-Islam agenda.
Unable to convince the rest of the European Union to support a common solution to resettle refugees across the continent, Merkel finally backed a controversial deal between the EU and Turkey that has recently taken effect. In an arrangement human rights groups denounce as immoral, Syrian refugees already in Turkey will be allowed to enter the EU, while asylum seekers who’ve made it to Greece are returned to Turkey. In return, Turkey has been promised millions in aid, visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens, and renewed negotiations that could pave the way for Turkey to join the EU (don’t hold your breath).
With the Balkan route to Germany and other EU states now closed by Serbia and Macedonia, the average number of migrants arriving in Germany has dropped to less than two hundred per day.
Now the country’s biggest challenge is to integrate the hundreds of thousands who have already begun a new life in a new land. Here are some of their stories, along with voices of those who want them to feel welcome.
Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor, and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Thanks to Adam Berry for his lead image, and to Manfred Sperling and PapaSax for the musical interludes in Alexa’s story. Special thanks to Silke and Toni Nolde. And thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.