Can Angela Merkel pull this one off?

Exeposé Features online (23 October 2015)

What do you do when 160,000 refugees arrive in your country within a month?

From inspirational stories of Germans helping those in need to terrifying reports of attacks by right-wing extremists, Germany’s response to the refugee crisis has ignited debate across Europe. But, how is the country really navigating the crisis?

Helping hands across Germany

In September 2015, 160,000 refugees were registered in Germany. For some, the figure was terrifying – but for others, it was a call to action. Munich made headlines in September when locals brought so many donations to the city’s station that police were overwhelmed.

TRANSLATION: “We’re overwhelmed by the many donations the people of Munich have brought to the main train station for the refugees. Please don’t bring any more for now!”

The world of football also stepped up to help. In September, the German national team released a video calling for Germany’s refugees to be treated fairly and respectfully.

TRANSLATION: “For helpfulness… for respect… for integration… for open-mindedness… for fair play… and against violence and xenophobia.”

The same month, Bayern Munich FC pledged to donate €1 million to refugee projects. The Bundesliga team also planned to set up free training camps for young refugees, offering free meals, football kits and German language classes alongside the training.

“Everyone can do something”

In Berlin, efforts to help are also in full swing.

Volunteer-planner.org is an online database allowing people to sign up for shifts in Berlin’s refugee homes. I spoke to Fabi Priess, one of those volunteering her time.

“As soon as I found out there was a way to get involved, I just did,” she said. “These are human beings just like you and me, fleeing from their home and running to survive.

“I believe we are called to be the change we want to see in this world,” she said. “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

Right-wing extremists grow in numbers

Image: Montecruz Foto via Flickr.com
Image: Montecruz Foto via Flickr.com

Of course, not everyone in Germany is ready to welcome refugees.

Back in August, attacks on refugee homes seemed an almost daily occurrence. At The Local Germany, where I work, it was almost impossible to report on every one. In September, my colleague wrote a story summarising the recent attacks. “Can you check there haven’t been any more in the night before I publish this?” he asked me. I checked. There had been two.

Among the extremists is, of course, Pegida. Under the full name “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,” this predominantly anti-Islam movement launched in Dresden in 2014 – as refugee numbers soared in recent months, Pegida’s numbers also swelled.

Angela Merkel – Hero or villain?

The German public’s response to refugees is hugely divided. But, as the world focuses its attention on Germany, one woman inevitably takes centre stage.

In August, Angela Merkel’s government made a ground-breaking announcement. They would make use of a special clause in the Dublin Regulation, meaning Syrian refugees could now seek asylum in Germany rather than being deported back to their EU country of arrival. Germany had opened its borders – and Angela Merkel had opened herself up to both hatred and adoration.

“A woman full of vision”

Merkel’s open-door policy towards refugees has inspired many, and the Chancellor was even nominated for this year’s Nobel peace prize. “I honour Angela Merkel a lot,” Fabi told me. “She is a great leader and I love that she is a woman full of vision. A woman who believes in the people of her own country.”

But, the German Chancellor is increasingly coming under attack – from the German public, from Pegida, and even her own party.

Europe’s most dangerous woman?

At rallies in October, Pegida banners portrayed Merkel in a Nazi uniform. Chanting: “Merkel has to go – we can do it!” they mocked the Chancellor’s can-do approach to taking on refugees.

TRANSLATION: “Fed up of Merkel and the chaos of asylum seekers? Pegida’s membership numbers are growing. We’ll see you on Monday in Dresden or Leipzig.”

By October 12th, the group had declared Merkel “the most dangerous woman in Europe.” As up to 9,000 people marched in Dresden, the group demanded that Merkel resign. Her pro-refugee policy had turned Germany into a “gigantic camp in the jungle,” a group leader told supporters.

Germans question Merkel

While living in Berlin, Exeter student Elly Angelova heard first-hand what some Germans think of Merkel’s policies. “My landlady would often express her concern that letting in so many refugees would make Germany into a much more dangerous place,” she told me. “She said the German government and Merkel are crazy for doing that to the country.”

Is this just blinkered xenophobia or could Germany’s refugees pose a real problem? I asked a German friend what he thought and was taken aback at his response. Directing me to anti-merkel.blog.de, he told me “I don’t think I’m the right person to answer these questions.”

“I am really critical about Merkel, our government and what the media says.”

It’s one thing to brush aside racist remarks made by extremist groups, but hearing someone I know and respect criticising Merkel was an eye-opener. Because this isn’t a rare opinion. 59 per cent of Germans in an October poll thought Merkel shouldn’t have opened the borders. In another survey, only 19 per cent thought Germany could definitely take in more refugees.

Image: Freedom House via Flickr.com
Image: Freedom House via Flickr.com


Is Germany nearing capacity?

In September, President Joachim Gauck warned that Germany was close to capacity. “Our heart is large, but our possibilities are finite,” he said.

This month, a group of asylum seekers took Berlin’s main refugee registration centre to court. Despite waiting over a week, they hadn’t yet been registered – meaning they couldn’t get a bed in a refugee home. And, believe me; in Berlin’s recent near-freezing temperatures, this is no laughing matter.

Meanwhile, Germany’s political scene is in turmoil. The Bavarian government recently threatened to take Angela Merkel to court if the government didn’t start sending refugees back to their country of arrival. And, at a regional congress on October 14th, CDU members warned of a “national catastrophe” if Merkel didn’t stem the flow of refugees.

“The situation is here now”

So, it’s hardly surprising that so many Germans are getting cold feet. Are they right to? It’s impossible to say. Merkel’s response to this crisis is something the world has never seen before.

She refuses to be publicly shaken. “Polls are not my measure,” she told Bild. “My measure is the task that I have as Chancellor: to solve the problem. And I’m completely and entirely concentrated on that.”

Germany had better hope so – because with between 800,000 and one million refugees expected this year, it’s going to be hard work. “But the situation is here now,” Merkel announced in a recent interview. “We can’t shut the borders. If you build a fence, people will find another way.”

So, what is ahead for Germany? Not even Merkel herself knows. But, either way, it’s going to go down in history. If Germany pulls this off, she will have led one of the greatest humanitarian missions the world has ever seen. Let’s just hope that enough of Germany stays behind her. Because I doubt even Angela Merkel can fix this on her own.

>>View original Exeposé feature>>

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