Many here in the U.S. may not be closely following what is going on right now in Germany. And that’s a shame. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the first truly courageous political decision by a world leader that I can remember. Faced with an onslaught of badly traumatized refugees that is likely to be in the millions, Angela Merkel effectively opened Germany’s doors wide when she decided that there would be “no limit” to the number of Syrian refugees taken in by her country if they reached German soil. This is in parallel with trying to shame other European countries to carry their fair share of the load.
There has in history never been anything quite like this.
Images abound of refugees holding hand-painted German flags or having pictures of Angela Merkel hung around their necks. When stopped in way countries such as Hungary, the refugees started chanting en masse “Germany! Germany!” In a direct reversal of World War II imagery, refugees burst into tears of joy upon learning that they had crossed into Austrian territory, hugging policemen; some get down on their knees on arriving in German train stations and kiss the concrete, it finally being German soil.
Many of the Syrian refugees are college educated and are – or at least were – well off; were it otherwise, they could not have afforded to make the costly trip. After all, smugglers, bribes, and train or plane tickets all cost money. The refugees are fleeing from a combination of the brutality and general insanity of ISIS, the Assad regime that isn’t much better, as well as well as other assorted regional violence. Germany’s expectation of 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone is likely to be outstripped; the U.N. estimates that there are already several million Syrian refugees in Turkey alone. But even the 800,000 number represents close to 1% of the German population.
Only 50% – 60% of the refugees are estimated to actually be of Syrian origin. Many are also from Iraq, especially from areas currently controlled by ISIS. However the clear majority are fleeing from Islamic extremism from whatever country of origin; a good number are also best understood as economic refugees. This last category if detected is likely to be sent home, and there are many of them. Even so, the numbers will be staggering.
No other European leader has stepped up as Angela Merkel has, even though other countries such as France and the U.K. are starting to bow to pressure to take in at least somewhat more refugees. Reasons for not wanting to do so are both abundant and varied. Most of Europe is suffering from a poor economy, and has significant unemployment rates. While Germany’s economic growth is modest, its economy is at least still growing, and its unemployment is low. Further, its population is aging. Its economy needs workers in many sectors. However fears of letting in terrorists cloaked as refugees are widespread and legitimate. Even if the numbers are small, so much as a single attack perpetrated by a “refugee” would be likely to provoke a large backlash. Such fears as well as concerns that many of the refugees will end up on welfare, and/or won’t integrate are true everywhere, including Germany.
The art of politics often seems to involve avoiding making any clear decision that one can be blamed for later – especially big decisions. But the crisis of the refugees is one in which two decisions were effectively possible: 1) do more or less what she did or 2) use severe force to remove the refugees that were arriving – put bars on train windows, have policemen subdue fleeing refugees by all means necessary and so on – all of which would almost instantly appear on the Internet. For someone like Angela Merkel for whom WWII is still living memory – she was born just 9 years after the end of the war and so grew up in the shadow of it – door #2 was totally unacceptable. Thus she fully embraced door #1. No half measures for her.
While the decision surely has risks, it demonstrates a level of bravery rarely seen among today’s leaders. And it may well be that she is genuinely rewarded for it with millions of future new citizens who will be forever grateful, who will do their best to give back and have the will to integrate more than did prior waves of economic immigrants.
Postscript: Just after this blog was posted, Germany imposed border controls at its border with Austria and also suspended train service. The move is generally seen as a way to pressure other European governments to agree to take in more migrants, and also seemed to reflect a literal capacity problem in shelters and other services. However, so-called prima facie refugees – in other words Syrians – who reach the border may still be being let in. I stand by my original arguments above. This is a rock and a hard place and it unlikely to offer anything but very tough choices anytime soon.