23 October 2016
In 2015 alone, Germany received more than a million refugees, the majority of whom came from Syria. Photo: Bloomberg
In 2015 alone, Germany received more than a million refugees, the majority of whom came from Syria. Photo: Bloomberg

Germany’s refugee-friendly policy at a crossroads

Not all of the four consecutive terrorist attacks on Germany last week were committed by new Muslim immigrants or refugees, but the magnitude of the attacks is enough to cause widespread fear among the German public, and calls into question Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open-door policy” for refugees.

Last year alone, Germany received more than a million refugees, the majority of whom came from Syria, according to official figures from Berlin.

Merkel’s decision to open border checkpoints and accept whoever wanted to seek asylum at the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis last year had the popular support of the German public initially.

Answering Merkel’s call, many German cities welcomed refugees with open arms, and hundreds of thousands of German people volunteered to help them find new homes and jobs.

However, just six months after Merkel decided to take in all refugees, many German cities began to find themselves overwhelmed by the continued influx of asylum seekers.

Many started to question whether waves after waves of refugees had already exceeded the capacity of their country.

Amid public pressure, Merkel eventually gave in and agreed to tighten border controls, but refused to shut the door on refugees completely.

Some observers have referred to Merkel’s almost stubborn insistence on accepting refugees as a “huge political gamble that might eventually turn out to be her undoing”.

The reasons behind Merkel’s open-door policy for Syrian refugees and her determination to press ahead with that decision, regardless of rising public opposition, are multiple, and should be looked at in their social, political, economic and historical context.

Bloomberg observer Leonid Bershidsky and well-known expert on the international refugee issue Petra Bendel gave us a lot of insight into the rationale behind Merkel’s refugee-friendly policies in their recent articles.

According to their analysis, post-war Germany has been remarkably more receptive to refugees than its European neighbors, and this is mainly due to its historical sense of guilt or remorse-driven mentality as a result of what the Nazis did during the war.

For decades most German people as well as their leaders have been subconsciously feeling morally bound to redeem themselves by helping and accommodating people that are displaced by war, which explains why Germany has remained the largest recipient of migrants and refugees in Europe over the years.

Suffice it to say there has been a consensus in post-war German society that they must treat refugees humanely and generously.

Chancellor Merkel’s own background and personal experiences might also have contributed to her compassion for refugees.

As an East German who spent her entire youth under communist rule, Merkel witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the wake of Germany’s reunification in 1990, the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl made the decision to pour an enormous amount of money and resources into rebuilding East Germany’s economy and narrowing the huge wealth gap between the western and eastern parts of his country, despite the fact that there were calls from some West Germans at that time for putting the German version of the Marshall Plan on hold out of concern about the economic burden that might come with it.

However, thanks to Chancellor Kohl’s insistence on integrating East Germany at all costs, tens of thousands of East Germans, both average individuals and members of the social elite, including Merkel herself, were able to find new lives and opportunities in the western part of their country and share the fruit of its economic prosperity after the reunification.

The generous and open-door policies of the West German government towards the east after the reunification obviously made a deep impression on Merkel, and helped shape her pluralistic values and convictions.

Of course, there is almost for certain raw economic and diplomatic calculus behind Merkel’s refugee-friendly policies.

For example, the influx of tens of millions of Middle East refugees can definitely revitalize Germany’s aging workforce.

Besides, since Turkey is currently the first stop for Syrian refugees, if Germany suddenly shuts the door on them, chances are most of them will get stuck in Turkey, and by doing so Berlin could risk angering Ankara, its close trading partner and ally, as well as the 3-million-strong Turkish community within Germany.

Therefore, turning its back on refugees completely could spell heavy social and diplomatic costs for Berlin.

Yet, the recent series of terrorist attacks is putting Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees to the most rigorous test and more and more people are questioning her policy.

If the terrorist attacks against Germany continue to escalate in the days ahead, it will definitely threaten Germany’s long-standing refugee-friendly tradition.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 1.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter