Germany’s New Normal

When I recently received an invitation for a friend’s birthday celebration in Tübingen, a small town in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, I did not hesitate much to accept. It had been a while since I had been back to the country where I spent more than 10 years of my life, and probably the most formative ones. I have to admit, that just as much as I wanted to see how my old friend was doing, I also wanted to see how the refugees were, and how the so-called “refugee crisis” was playing out on the ground in a country that has been welcoming towards people in need.

Photo: Sven-Kare Evenseth/CC


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It is hard for me to say why I personally care about refugees more than I do about other disadvantaged or marginalized groups, nor when this interest began or what exactly is at its roots. In fact, I never really thought about it much; it simply felt natural and I can only guess that being a Czech national living outside of the Czech Republic for a large part of my life made me prone to ask questions relating to identity, culture, nationhood, and migration. My compassion for refugees, something I consider simply “human,” is probably just a natural by-product of my own not-quite-diminished migrant identity.

This by-product also led to my active involvement in the asylum and migration field quite a while before today’s “refugee crisis” started to unfold.  And yet while seeing refugees finally making headlines in Czech media had me excited a year ago, today it has me feeling tired. The fatigue has less to do with the prevalence of the topic as such and more to do with Czech society falling into hysteria with almost no refugees in the country. 1 Visiting Germany was thus a welcomed occasion to stay connected to those I wish to fight for and alongside.

So I checked my Geldbeutel, 2 exchanged a few euros and headed towards Stuttgart via  Mitfahrgelegenheit 3 and Deutsche Bahn. 4 The minute I stepped off the train at Stuttgart’s main station, I was taken by the social diversity so much more audibly present in (West) German public spaces than in the Czech Republic. On the next train to Tübingen, I bumped into one of my former university colleagues. Not surprisingly, refugees were our first topic of conversation, and they continued to dominate the weekend’s discussions, many leading to assessments of how Czech and German societies are (or aren’t) managing the so-called refugee crisis.

There is of course the obvious difference: the Czech Republic (at least for now) hardly has anyone aside from its own citizens to “manage.” However, it would be wrong to think that Germany’s welcoming approach suddenly emerged simply because refugees began arriving there. On the contrary, the nation’s more successful (so far at least) management of the situation is due to the fact that the “Refugees Welcome” movement was there long before the Syrian crisis began.

In Dresden, where I studied, local groups have been active on the ground assisting refugees with their everyday lives and their appointments with authorities, while also providing them with free German language classes. 5 Between 2010 and 2013, when I volunteered with the Dresden chapter of the Save Me campaign, 6 we not only managed to convince the city to agree to a regular refugee resettlement quota, but we also fostered a mutually beneficial relationship with the local administration, which enabled us to inform and assist each other when new refugees arrived. 7

The local initiatives on the ground were also fortified by concrete demands to the Federal government. The political relevance of the asylum and migration policies manifested itself in a range of advocacy efforts, most notably around Bleiberecht (The Right to Stay)  8, enabling NGOs like Pro Asyl to establish themselves and gradually gain supporters. Later the relevance could be seen in German citizens’ acts of civil disobedience, which illustrate their disapproval of the state’s deportation policies, 9 and most recently in the work by The Center for Political Beauty, 10 which regularly disturbs the German public with apperceived performances under the notion of “aggressive humanism.” 11

At the same time, the political and societal discussions were able to attain some degree of institutionalization, like at the regular “German Islam Conferences.” 12 And most importantly, the politicization of the topic eventually led the refugees to organize themselves at different protest sites, like Berlin’s Oranienplatz, resulting in a broader refugee-led movement. 13

The presence of established volunteer and activist networks and this differentiated political discourse proved crucial last year when the crisis peaked. People were there, trained and ready to assist. Their preparedness had also laid the groundwork for the emergence of some great initiatives, like the placement of refugees in private housing;  14 the development of online apps meeting refugees’ needs; 15 the creation of a radio station with regular updates both in English and Arabic; 16 and the establishment of an online university that enables refugees to continue their education. 17

At the same time, it would be naïve to think the pre-existence of a discourse or a movement could motivate every German to welcome refugees into their homes today. In the last couple of months resistance can be seen not only in the disturbing increases in the number of arson cases involving refugee housing facilities, and in the growing political clout of the right-wing, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has had important success recently in one local and three regional elections. 18

Will the German discourse and voters’ preference eventually follow the “Czech c(o)urse” and shift further to the right? At the moment it is hard to tell since the developments are manifold and difficult to interpret directly. 19 Nevertheless, at least in Germany you can have a debate about your country’s Willkommenskultur. In the Czech Republic, there is not even a word for a “culture of welcoming” (yet). As a result, while average Germans ask how or how much they can still help, average Czechs are still hung up on whether they should help in the first place.

These differences finally materialized for me while I was walking towards Tübingen’s castle that Saturday morning. I could not help but notice that some German families were now accompanied on their weekend tours by their new refugee friends. This told me, more than any statistics could, that for certain parts of German society, living with refugees has already become the new normal.

Notes:

  1. In 2015, while some 476,649 people sought international protection in Germany, only 1,525 did so in the Czech Republic. Because of a backlog in the administrative processing of applications in Germany, the actual number of arrivals  is likely higher; Ministerstvo vnitra (Ministry of the Interior) (MI), “Statistické zprávy o mezinárodní ochraně za jednotlivé měsíce v roce 2015“ (Statistical reports on international protection per each month of 2015), January 14, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, http://www.mvcr.cz/clanek/statisticke-zpravy-o-mezinarodni-ochrane-za-jednotlive-mesice-v-roce-2015.aspx; Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF) (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees), “Aktuelle Zahlen zu Asyl“ (Current Asylum Data), February 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Downloads/Infothek/Statistik/Asyl/statistik-anlage-teil-4-aktuelle-zahlen-zu-asyl.pdf?__blob=publicationFile;  Bundesministerium des Inneren (BMI) (Federal Ministry of the Interior), “2015: Mehr Asy­lan­trä­ge in Deutsch­land als je­mals zu­vor,” BMI Press Releases, January 6, 2016, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/2016/01/asylantraege-dezember-2015.html.
  2. A purse.
  3. A ride sharing service.
  4. German national railway company.
  5. Kontaktgruppe Asyl, e.v., accessed April 4, 2016, http://kontaktgruppeasyl.blogsport.de/.
  6. Save Me Kampagne, accessed March 12, 2016, http://www.save-me.de/.
  7. Save Me Kampagne Dresden, accessed March 12, 2016, http://www.save-me-dresden.de/.
  8. PRO ASYL, “25 Jahre PRO ASYL: Gewissen lässt sich nicht einfach Abschieben,“ PROASYL, September 4, 2011, accessed April 4, 2016, https://www.proasyl.de/hintergrund/25-jahre-pro-asyl-die-geschichte-der-organisation-im-ueberblick/.
  9. Marcus Staiger, “Wie man eine Abschiebung verhindert,“ VICE, July 13, 2015, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.vice.com/de/read/wie-man-eine-abschiebung-verhindert-463.
  10. Zentrum für politische Schönheit, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.politicalbeauty.com/.
  11. Zentrum für politische Schönheit, “Aggressiver Humanismus: Von der Unfähigkeit der Demokratie, große Menschenrechtler hervorzubringen,“ Medium, July 14, 2014, accessed April 4, 2016, https://medium.com/@politicalbeauty/aggressiver-humanismus-3d091f8732a3#.uuyiclv5d.
  12. Deutsche Islam Konferenz, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.deutsche-islam-konferenz.de/DIK/DE/Startseite/startseite-node.html.
  13. Refugee Movement, accessed April 4, 2016, https://oplatz.net/.
  14. Flüchtlinge Willkommen, accessed March 12 2016, http://fluechtlinge-willkommen.de/.
  15. See e.g. Welcome App Concept, accessed April 4, 2016, http://welcome-app-concept.de/.
  16. Refugee Radio – NDR Info, accessed April 6 2016, http://www.ndr.de/info/podcast4278.html.
  17. Kiron, accessed April 4, 2016, https://kiron.ngo/.
  18. AfD ranked third in Hessen’s local elections (averaging 12% of the votes), second in in Saxony-Anhalt’s regional elections (24.2%), third in Baden-Württemberg’s regional elections (15.1%) and third in Rhineland-Pfalz’s regional elections (12.6%). Hessisches Statistisches Landesamt, “Endgültiges Ergebnis der Kommunalwahl am 6. März 2016,“ Statistik-Hessen.de, March 21, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, http://www.statistik-hessen.de/k2016/html/EK1.pdf; Statistisches Landesamt Sachsen-Anhalt, Wahl des 7. Landtages von Sachsen-Anhalt am 13. März 2016 – Grafische Darstellungen, March 24, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, http://www.statistik.sachsen-anhalt.de/wahlen/lt16/index.html; Statistisches Landesamt Baden-Württemberg, Endgültiges Ergebnis der Landtagswahl am 13.03, accessed April 6, 2016, http://www.statistik.baden-wuerttemberg.de/Wahlen/Landtag/02035000.tab?R=LA; Statistisches Landesamt Rheinland Pfalz, “Endgültiges Ergebnis der Landtagswahl 2016 steht fest,“ Landeswahlleiter Rheinland Pfalz, March 24, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, http://wahlen.rlp.de/ltw/presse/lwl16016.html.
  19. The serious drop in support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is not necessarily an expression of voter dissatisfaction with her policies regarding the refugee crisis, but a disapproval of CDU’s internal conflicts, precisely on the question whether or not to accept refugees, which is is having with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Second, other political parties opting for a welcoming approach towards refugees, like the Greens gained important victories. Yet the Green victory can be understood in manifold ways, as the local party leader, Kretschmann, is a representative of a more rightwing faction within the Greens. His support for crucial cuts in Asylum law (Asylpaket II) or the CSU chief Horst Seehofer who regularly speaks against accepting refugees, has led some German media to call him the “Green hardliner” of asylum policies. Jos Stübner, “Politika ‘hnědne‘ nejen na východě Německa. Co je za úspěchem AfD?“ MigraceOnline, April 1, 2016, accessed April 4, 2016, http://migraceonline.cz/cz/e-knihovna/politika-hnedne-nejen-na-vychode-nemecka-co-je-za-uspechem-afd; Kevin Hagen/AFP/DPA, “Flüchtlingpolitik: Kretschmann nimmt Seehofer in Schutz,” Spiegel Online, March 8, 2016, accessedl April 11, 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fluechtlinge-winfried-kretschmann-verteidigt-horst-seehofer-a-1081322.html; Josef Kelnberger, “Winnfried Kretschmann – grüner Hardliner in der Asylpolitik,“ Sueddeutsche.de, January 13, 2016, acessed April 11, 2016, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/fluechtlingspolitik-hardliner-in-gruen-1.2816648.
Zuzana Pavelková

Zuzana Pavelková

is an activist and founder of the initiative "Česko vítá uprchlíky" (Czech Republic welcomes refugees). She worked with different civil society organizations and initiatives advocating for refugee and migrant rights in Germany,​ ​France​ and Czech Republic.