Merkel’s Finest Hour

I know in writing this I risk incurring the wrath of those who believe the Greeks to be fundamentally not at fault for their problems, but I’d like to speak about a less controversial side of German politics, namely its openness towards asylum seekers. Germany has not been the perfect land of welcome, as evidenced by numerous arson attacks on future and current asylum seeker accommodation centres. In addition, Europe has collectively failed to save lives in the Mediterranean by rescuing people before they drown; in any case the contrasts with Australia are jarring.

In 2014 there were more refugees in the world than at any time since the end of WWII, when much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. The number is believed to be about 60 million people. Many of these, fleeing violence and tyranny in countries like Syria or Eritrea, have decided to flee to Europe. In 2014 Germany took the most number of asylum applications in Europe, at 173000, even though asylum seekers are supposed to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, which is normally Italy, if sailing over the Mediterranean, or in states like Hungary or Bulgaria or Greece, if they are coming over the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ from Greece through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria into Germany. There have also been more than 2000 deaths at sea this year, most shockingly the 800 killed in a single boat sinking in April, and 71 suffocated refugees found in an abandoned truck on the side of an Austrian Autobahn a week ago. Rather than provoking victim-blaming (shouldn’t have got on those boats) or still crueller policies, this was described in the media as ‘Europe’s shame’.

Part of the refugee crisis facing Europe is that there is no fixed system of how to share the burden (at least in the short term it’s a burden) of asylum seekers around the 28 European Union states. Many Eastern European countries deny any responsibility, most notably Hungary, which has built a barbed wire fence along their border with Serbia and call it ‘Germany’s problem’. In response to this crisis, instead of sending asylum seekers back to their country of entry to the EU, Merkel has decided to override European agreements (the Dublin Accords) and Germany will now take applications for any asylum seekers that reach Germany, rather than send them back to their country of entry.

The plan is now to give shelter to between 800 000 and 1 million asylum seekers, equivalent to about 1% of Germany’s population. This would be like Australia taking 240 000 asylum seekers; instead we are planning to resettle about 6000 refugees this financial year, (and no boat people) which is a little different from processing asylum seeker applications, but still a worthwhile comparison. The number of arriving asylum seekers in Australia in 2013-2014 was 9072 arriving by boat, plus 9646 arriving by plane, a vastly lower number. Of course the numbers in Germany and Australia pale in comparison with those of Syria’s neighbours, like Lebanon, where 1 million refugees now make up 20% of its population.

But enough of the statistics: it’s clear that Australia is not taking anywhere near its share of responsibility. I’m actually more interested in the politics, particularly the reactions of our two leaders, both Christians, and both right-wingers. Tony Abbott was once in training to be a Jesuit priest, while Angela Merkel is the leader of a party called the Christian Democratic Union.

“Jesus knew there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”

‘There is no tolerance for those who place the worth of other people in question’

I will leave it up to you to decide who said which. The key here is that when the right-wing parties hold out against their populist urges, a humane asylum seeker policy is possible. It is by no means perfect, and Merkel did remain more or less silent for far too long, but it is a relief to see Germany taking a lead. In addition to this, asylum seekers will be able to work, although EU citizens get first priority for jobs, as already enshrined in EU law. There is widespread acknowledgement that it is a crisis that has to be addressed by Europe, instead of pushed off onto poorer countries on other continents. Merkel only recently visited an asylum seeker accommodation centre for the first time, and copped much criticism for her delay, but at least it has happened now. When Australian politicians visit our closest equivalent, offshore detention centres (concentration camps) they get spied on by private companies, e.g.  Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

In my region of Germany, the crisis has also shown its effect. Community gymnasiums, indoor tennis courts, empty military barracks and other public spaces are being turned into emergency accommodation, with the local government is determined not to have these people living in tents, especially with winter only a few months away. In Australia, the tent is our weapon of choice, rather than the thing to be avoided at all costs. My Landkreis, the Oberallgäu, has a population of 150 000, currently houses 1200 asylum seekers, and is taking on 50 more every week.

It should also be noted that while 90% of Australia’s asylum seeker applications are accepted, the number is much lower in Europe, at only 50%, since many of the asylum seekers come from the Balkan States like Kosovo or Albania, and almost all of those ones are considered economic migrants. Compare Bob Carr in 2013, claiming that most of our asylum seekers are economic migrants and thus deserving of tough treatment, despite lacking any evidence to support this claim. Even with many not being genuine asylum seekers, it still hasn’t poisoned mainstream political discourse, and Germany remains ready to help and process applications as quickly as reasonably possible, and will do, according to Merkel, ‘what is morally and legally required’.

My point is not that Germany’s response has been perfect, but that it has acknowledged that it is a part of the international community, and has a moral obligation to do something. More from Merkel: ‘The world sees Germany as a land of hope and opportunity, it was truly not always so’, and ‘If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed’. It shows a leader who has managed to steer political discourse away from the dark places Australia’s has reached, one who has taken the moral high ground rather than the populist ground that the Liberal Party has claimed as their own, and into which Labor has reluctantly followed them.

Germany has not forgotten its dark past and is justifiably horrified by the racism present in some parts of society, notable the former communist East, but overall they have an attitude that should be followed by all developed and many developing nations. I believe that Angela Merkel will cement her place in history with her decision to lead on the asylum seeker crisis. Germany is prepared to bear the € 5 billion hit to its budget, so we Australians should be prepared to accept at least a small degree of hardship to do our bit for the world.


I received a query as to where I drew Australia’s 6000 refugees resettled refugees figure from. My response:

Australia’s humanitarian program of 13,750 includes:
  • Refugees and their families who have already arrived in Australia by boat or plane
  • Refugees and their families who will be ‘resettled’ from overseas, and
  • Humanitarian entrants and their families seeking to enter Australia from overseas.
The last category is known as the ‘special humanitarian program’ which is basically family reunions and people who have suffered some sort of discrimination overseas. They are considered to be unable to return home because of discrimination (e.g. being ineligible for a job) rather than persecution, which is the threshold for being a refugee (more or less).
In 2013-14 we took in 13768 people through the humanitarian program, down from 20019 the year before, of which 6501 were resettled refugees, 4515 were under the SHP program, and 2775 were ‘onshore protection visa grants’ which I think means boat people and plane people/balloon people/helicopter people etc. The report doesn’t distinguish between boat people and plane people, but I went of government announcements (‘If you come here by boat, you will never be settled in Australia) for that assumption, perhaps erroneously. So I think what I said was true but perhaps more detail would have been good in the post, although it wasn’t really about the exact numbers.
Part of the issue is that whenever government announce they will do more to help specific groups, they carve that out of the existing program, which means denying Afghans their place in the 13750 to provide for more Syrians, for example. If we want to take more SHP entrants, it means taking fewer resettled refugees. There is a fantastic bit of spin put up to the answer of ”do boat arrivals take the places from other refugees?’. They say ‘no’, but it is however linked to the number of SHP arrivals, i.e. this time they deprive others of a place to take boat/plane people. I guess the government could then decide to take more SHPs, which would subsequently deny places to resettled refugees.
Is it any wonder the Australia public is confused? In any case, the document shows we are mean and isolationist when it comes to this issue.

One thought on “Merkel’s Finest Hour

  1. Nick, it’s wonderful to read your compassionate views about the plight of so many desperate, displaced persons. Stay safe and keep writing. Love from Polly

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