GOTHA, GERMANY: In welcoming thousands of refugees shunned by others Germany occupies moral high ground. Stories and images of desperate migrants fill television news. Nightly there are informed debates about the challenge of integrating Syrian and other Muslim asylum seekers into German society.
The impulse to help is visceral, shared by the public and elected leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel probably speaks for millions when she declares, “I am happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside of Germany now associate with hope.”
Germany’s biggest political parties, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, are at one on immigration, agreeing that Germany can absorb 500,000 refugees this year. Only Bavaria’s Christian Social Union is skeptical.
The welcome signal from the top resonates. This week I watched youthful volunteers at the Frankfurt train station wearing “refugees welcome” shirts in English and Arabic handing out fruit and soft drinks to new arrivals.
Germany’s affirmative stance has struck a chord elsewhere, including the Pope’s call for Catholic families to take in refugees, and Britain and France increasing the number they’re willing to accept.
But there is a limit to German generosity and of course the burden of accepting refugees must be shared. The ongoing flood of refugees underscores a complete absence of EU consensus on immigration. Much of the disagreement is historical and cultural.
Greece, the first EU country where Iraqi and Syrian migrants arrive after transiting Turkey, is weak politically and prostrate economically. Greek authorities on islands adjacent to Turkey were overwhelmed. EU migration guidelines were ignored. Greece merely transported refugees to Athens and put them on trains headed north.
A single rail line links Greece with Belgrade through Macedonia. Departing from a EU country the refugees walk the final mile to the border where the Macedonians have been ill prepared to receive them. Once aboard trains—as I observed last weekend in Skopje—the refugees arrive in another non EU country Serbia, which has done well in moving them through to the Hungarian border.
It is in EU member country Hungary where the problem is most severe. Hungary, led by a rightist nationalist party, has greeted the refugees with contempt and the ugly scenes at the Budapest station and the Serbian border have spread worldwide.
But it’s not just Hungary. Other EU countries– formerly communist Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and the three Baltic States—oppose quotas on accepting refugees. Romania and Bulgaria, the poorest EU members, say they won’t take any. And Bulgaria—where 500 years of Turkish oppression is still talked about—is viewed as the EU country least welcoming to Muslims.
Critics of Germany’s stance say the country is naïve and foolish, that the floodgates having been opened, ISIS and other terrorist groups will have placed their people among the refugees. Germans are aware of that danger but count on strict accountability as migrants are required to study German and regularly update their status. Unlike illegal immigrants into United States those coming to Germany seldom vanish into a marginalized shadow economy.
Much is at risk in this refugee crisis. Unless resolved soon the free movement of people within the EU’s single market—the Schengen agreement—could be modified. Germany’s asylum policies are in flux and already migrants from countries no longer labled conflict zones—Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro—are being sent back.
Germany is no stranger to mass migrations and is acutely aware of its horrific failure to protect Jews during the Nazi period. After the war Germany resettled over five million Germans expelled from lost territories. There was a wave of migration out of East Germany prior to unification. The current flood of people, however, is the greatest since the war and shows no sign of abating.
As with the euro currency crisis, Chancellor Merkel says the future of the European Union is at stake. “If Europe fails the refugee question,” she says, “then a founding impulse for a united Europe will be lost.”
For now at least Germany holds high the banner of human rights.