Let me begin with a general question. Give us a few notes on the refugees’ situation in Germany as of today, September 2015.
This summer, Germany has become the destination of an unprecedented number of refugees and migrants. While during the 2000s, there were about 30.000 asylum applications per year, this year, official estimates are around 800.000 (yes, eight hundred thousand), and this was even before the summer. It might as well become a million.
Two weeks ago, the federal asylum office stated that they would not return Syrian refugees under the Dublin III regulation. This piece of news spread like wild fire in the social networks, and suddenly Germany became the destination of choice of many of the Syrian refugees. The German asylum system by now is working at its limits, and the bureaucracy is working on providing housing, food, etc and dealing with all the asylum applications.
In the past few days in Germany we’ve seen marches of far right groups against refugees but we’ve also seen many citizens offering help, goods, solidarity. What are the trends emerging in the German society?
Now, given this situation and remembering how racist and anti-refugee the general climate was in the German population in the 1990s, something unexpected has happened. Last week, when several thousand refugees arrived at the Munich central train station every day, a lot of people gathered in order to welcome the refugees arriving in the trains. People were clapping, cheering, donating water, food, clothes and there was a huge number of volunteers. This wave of solidarity went so far that the Munich police officially asked people to stop donating, as they could not handle the huge amount of donations any more. And this situation does not only extend to Munich, similar scenes have been reported from other German cities as well. The refugees is the main topic in the media right now, and the general discourse has a very positive attitude towards refugees.
I think what is really important is that even though there are some critical voices from a right wing party that is part of the federal government, the government itself has largely seized the positive attitude and does not monger fear. Announcements by ministers that the situation can be handled and that no chaos will ensue are very important for the positive mood to remain. However, the government has already proposed or implemented new legislation that will make the living conditions of refugees in Germany harder, will lead to more deportations and detention and that will exclude the population of whole countries from the access to asylum. So the rollback has already started.
However, and this is what differentiates the current situation from the 1990s, the government and the other parties are not in an un-acknowledged alliance with the racists on the streets and the Nazis who are trying to turn public opinion against refugees. The large racist mobilizations of the winter under the umbrella of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) have largely faded away, and the split in the new right wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) – a party that advocated for Germany to leave the Euro-zone and that cozied up to Pegida – into a liberal-conservative and national-conservative party has largely destroyed their momentum. The Nazis are trying hard, right now there is an arson attack on a refugee home nearly every night. But, and this is the difference to the 1990s, they cannot legitimately claim to represent the concerns of the German population. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the mood will not swing.
What’s your explanation of the German government’s recent decision to suspend the Dublin regulation for Syrian refugees? How did we come to this decision, why did chancellor Merkel took it?
There are really two explanations. For one, from what I hear, the decision to suspend Dublin for Syrian refugees was the result of a miscommunication. The federal asylum office was debating such a move internally, but word leaked, was reported, and then the government could not go back.
I think, what is really happening is that Germany has understood over the last years the efforts of the last twenty, thirty years to Europeanize the political field of migration and asylum has failed. Externalisation, that is the attempt to include countries outside the European Union into migration control, came to an end with the Arab Spring. Dublin, which you might call the second line of defence of the militarised border regime, has similarly been failing over the last years. Not only has Greece dropped out in 2011, over the last years, it has become pretty obvious that the whole construction of Dublin (let the peripheral member states of the EU dealing with refugees) not only would not work, but has created a rift between the North and the South. So Germany, which had profited from Dublin over the last 15 years, would suddenly have to deal with a continuous influx of refugees for the years to come. Now, with Germany taking most of the refugees in Europe, it will have a good stance in the coming re-negotiation of the European migration regime. Cynically, you might also add that it is a huge image campaign for Germany, after the government faced global condemnation for their stance in the negotiations with Greece.
However, there is one more important factor, and that is the refugees themselves. The mostly Syrian refugees that were stranded in Hungary in the beginning of September were very well organised. After all, I believe many to have the experience of the Arab Spring in Syria, i.e. the initial attempts to bring down the Assad dictatorship through large scale demonstrations and civil disobedience. I really think that the march towards Austria and the general will to fight for their freedom of movement within Europe created a situation that Germany, for the sake of its European project, could not control either. This really is a victory of migration as a social movement.
What is the importance of this decision, and what do you expect its consequences to be?
In regard to the general EU policy on migration, what changes could you see these recent weeks?
I think that the consequence is the final break-down of the Dublin-system. And that is huge. Well, on the European level, nobody is really talking of replacing Dublin. The proposed quota system is supposed to act as a pressure valve for Dublin. But still, on the long run, we might see the emergence of a Europeanized asylum system, with a European asylum office and a European border guard. However, what really amazes me is that nearly all of the European mechanism to keep refugees and migrants away from Europe have crumbled in this long summer of migration. Rebuilding it will not be easy, and it will take a long time.
What are really the options Europe has right now? The navy deployment in the Mediterranean against smugglers, that will not work. Creating huge camps in Greece and Italy, possibly Hungary, I think that will not work either. You cannot have huge ghettos in Europe. Not because there have never been ghettos and concentration camps in Europe, but precisely because the European project purports to be the antithesis to that Europe of the past.
The commission wants to seize the moment and deepen the European integration. And by that, they mean centralization, and more power and competences for the Commission. You could see that clearly in Junker’s State of the European Union address. I am not sure this will fly at the moment. In this year, we have seen two moments of the crisis of the European project, i.e. the brutal imposition of the third memorandum on Greece, and the breakdown of the migration regime. There is a double crisis here, for one of the monetary union, i.e. the Euro, and of the territorial union, i.e. Schengen and its related mechanisms.
There are huge implications of a centralized and Europeanized asylum system. For example, what kind of residence permit would it hand out? It really can be only a European residence permit, and that would be a direct attack against the idea that you can only be a citizen of Europe by virtue of citizenship of a EU member state. Right now, I cannot image for this to happen, not in this re-nationalized Europe.
From the point of view of the German antiracist movement, what do you think are the main challenges and issues to be addressed?
This is a difficult question to answer, for I think we have also been very much surprised by the intensity of this summer. We factually have open borders right now, who would have thought that? The big question is, how can we turn the spontaneous solidarity into a political current. As I said, the rollback is already starting, and we need to be vigilant. That at least in Germany. On a European, or even global level, I think it is important to turn the events of this summer into a more general discussion of social and political rights, and into what membership in society can mean. If we remember the two crucial moments of this year, we see on the one hand a brutal insistence on rules in the case of Greece, and a disregard for rules when it seems opportune to do so as in the case of the refugees stuck in Hungary. This arbitrariness – or even despotism – points to a huge democratic deficit in Europe, and worse, it fractures European society (if there is such a thing) into many groups of differentiated rights and rights to have rights. This is what we have to keep in mind and where we have to turn our attention to.
– Of hope. Hungary and the long summer of migration