The political parties in Germany are far too evolved to make the refugee crisis an electoral issue unlike in the US, the UK or France. The media, too, have behaved quite responsibly on the issue.
The tragic fate of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who lost his life in the Aegean Sea as his family tried to reach Europe from Turkey, could well be the trigger that could change the demographics of Europe, especially Germany. The lifeless body of the three-year-old shook the German conscience so much so that the typically cautious German government rewrote its immigration policy almost overnight with the country’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel declaring that Germany could accept as many as 5,00,000 refugees annually for several years. Following this, thousands of refugees, most of them from Syria, have arrived in Germany via Hungary and Austria after an overland trek through the Balkans. Munich alone received nearly 20,000 people in three days.
Germany has been traditionally a magnet for migrants and refugees from across the world. It now stands second in the world after the US as the largest destination for immigrants, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. With the aggravating refugee crisis, Germany has announced changes to the rules by which it processed refugee applications. Till now, the European Union’s policy was based on the “Dublin regulation”, under which asylum seekers had to lodge their applications in the first European country they arrive at. Germany has abandoned this policy for refugees from Syria. It has, however, caused a huge rush of asylum seekers from several countries.
There are several reasons why the Angela Merkel government chose to extend such a liberal policy towards refugees. To begin with, the government had the overwhelming backing of ordinary Germans, who have even lined up at railway stations and bus terminals to welcome refugees, offering them basic help. A recent opinion poll showed that 88 per cent of Germans have donated clothes or money to refugees. Merkel has taken full advantage of the situation and has made several decisive interventions to consolidate public support in favour of accepting more refugees. “They [the refugees] need help to learn German, and they should find a job quickly. Many of them will become new citizens of our country. If we do it well, this will bring more opportunities than risks,” she told the German parliament.
Merkel and the Germans seem to have understood the significance of the demographic dividend that the refugees can bring to their country. Just like much of the western world, Germany, too, is staring at a demographic abyss. Birthrates are at an all-time low and the population has been flatlining for quite some time now. As a result, in many parts of Germany, especially in the east, apartments are deserted, schools are being shut for want of students and trade and service companies are facing closure due to inadequate number of workers. According to the Federal Employment Agency, more than 37,000 trainee positions remain unfilled in fields like plumbing and catering. Unemployment rate in the country is at a record low of six per cent. Moreover, the German population will shrink from 81.3 million in 2013 to 70.8 million in 2060 and by that time, there will be fewer than two Germans under the age of 65 who would work and support each German over 65. This dependency ratio appears to be unsustainable in the long run.
German leaders are confident that they can support the refugees without raising the taxes. The six billion euros that Germany has earmarked for refugees this year is loose change for the country, which is among the economic powerhouses of the world. No wonder groups as diverse as industrial leaders and labour unions are united in their welcome of refugees. Another attraction for Germany is the fact that a majority of the refugees from Syria are highly educated and skilled workers like doctors and engineers, who could add value to German economy.
Economic and demographic opportunities apart, there are historical reasons why Germans show a far more accommodative spirit towards refugees. The guilt of Holocaust is still alive in Germany. Moreover, Germany’s rebirth after World War II was made possible to a large extent by the wave of refugees who arrived in the country from the neighbouring states. More than 10 million people flowed into the country after the great war. A considerable section of the German population today are their descendants and has played a decisive role in shaping the country’s attitude towards refugees. That is, perhaps, why the neo-Nazi fringe groups have not yet succeeded in making any significant gains in their anti-migrant initiatives.
The political parties in Germany are far too evolved to make the refugee crisis an electoral issue unlike in the US, the UK or France. The media, too, have behaved quite responsibly on the issue. Even the popular conservative tabloids have welcomed the refugees and have been distributing leaflets in Arabic with information for the refugees.
The position on refugees has also turned into a great public relations coup for Germany. Till a week ago, Germany was much pilloried by liberal groups for its stand on the Greek financial crisis. The German demand for austerity and tight financial restrictions for extending further loans to Greece caused a government to fall in that country and was opposed by many people. The public perception changed overnight with the German position on refugees, with the country now being called the angel of Europe and a role model for the world.
Critics, however, allege that the German move would be counterproductive. It is likely to drive more people from the troubled spots in the world to Europe, thereby, exacerbating the crisis. Germany has called for a quota system asking other European countries to accept more refugees. The UK has already opted out and many European countries have expressed anger towards Germany over the issue. Many of the east European states are not financially capable to host refugees. Even rich countries are worried about the German move. Denmark has closed its borders with Germany to prevent the influx of migrants. Finally, the German position has diluted the distinction between refugees and economic migrants. For instance, a vast majority of the refugees who have reached Europe are from refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, who have left the camps in search of better living conditions. The less privileged, who do not have the money to pay the traffickers are left behind in the war zones.
With Germany accepting the relatively prosperous professionals, the postwar reconstruction of Syria and other war-ravaged countries will also be imperilled. It will leave many of the war-torn countries with poor and unskilled people, pushing those countries down to a lifetime of misery and poverty, providing fertile ground for terrorist groups. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was not way off the mark when he hinted about the impending danger. “If all these refugees come to Europe or elsewhere, then Islamic State has won the game.”