In my recent trip to Germany to reconnect with my German friends, visit a number of the refugees I had helped during my volunteer work in 2015, and reconnect with a few former refugee friends (foreign nationals) who had migrated to Germany more than a decade ago, I held many discussions about the current state of Germany after Angela Merkel’s 2015 open door policy that resulted in the influx of 1.1 million immigrants into the country. We discussed their perceptions and frustrations. As I listened to the national news and to friends I spoke with, I soon realized that the spirit of the 2015 welcome culture (Wilkomenculture) had subsided tremendously in Germany. Increased security threats through terrorist attacks, economic issues, high unemployment rate, rising living costs, a hike in crimes, and the challenge for preservation of the German society and culture had become key problems. Integration of refugees had continued to be a challenge for the government and society as a whole, as well as the Germans and refugees themselves.
Frustrations Expressed by Germans
Most Germans expressed frustrations about their government’s policies that had led to the influx of over a million refugees—too many refugees in too short period of time, without thorough background checks. While national security remained a concern, the majority of Germans expressed greater frustrations about economic and social issues.
In terms of the economy, Germans continued to express concerns and frustrations about the negative economic effects the refugees continued to have on their country. The monthly welfare payments, social housing, food, medical and educational costs for each refugee not only stretched their economy, but their taxes from “their hard labor” went to the refugees instead of their own social programs that would have benefited Germans, their families, and their young people.
Their next frustration was the changes refugees—and in particular Muslim refugees—were imposing on German society and culture. Germans are still adjusting to social and cultural Muslim traditions, in particular the Islamic veil. While Germany is home to roughly three million Turkish immigrants, the 2015 refugees introduced new challenges to the society: introduction of Arab-Muslim culture and language with imbedded security concerns and lack of knowledge of how to merge the two cultures and effectively immerse these Muslim refugees into the German society. While Germany considers itself a secular state, by and large, Middle Easterners view the West as a Christian society just as they view Western countries as Christian lands. As a result, unspoken and silent religious tensions are evident. Merkel’s government seemed to struggle finding venues to balance out the German societal norms—especially in response to the fierce opposition to her immigration policies—while respecting Islamic traditions, in particular the full veil (commonly known as burqa or niqab).
To remedy this intense situation and also for security reasons, on December 6, 2016, while I was in Germany, Angela Merkel proposed the ban of the full veil. She argued that Germans use eye contact when they speak with one another and this was an important cultural phenomenon. Additionally, people are required to show their faces at passport controls or in certain jobs such as teaching and social work.
Implementation of this policy will perhaps be the biggest challenge Merkel has yet to face. The primary concern is the misinterpretation of her policy proposal by the majority of Muslim refugees, especially those who hold extremist views. Will they interpret her proposal as an attack on Islam? Will her government’s move to remove the full veil—a symbol of Islamic religion—be interpreted as an attack on their religion by an “infidel” government? Merkel may also experience a backlash by ordinary Muslim refugees who view the veil as religious practice and adherence to their faith, and may feel discriminated against or infringement on their religious freedom and religious duties. If she is successful in implementing this policy, Mrs. Merkel may be able to ease some tensions among her opponents and the opponents of the Muslim veil, but she may have greater battles ahead: the retaliation of the Muslim extremists.
Frustrations of Former Refugees
The former refugees or foreign nationals who have been living in Germany for some time expressed the impact of the influx of immigrants on their standard of living. While cultural issues were of some concern to them, the greater concern was economic. They expressed resentments about the current refugees taking their jobs, causing a rise in housing and rental prices, and even making it difficult to find an apartment in the city. While most of them used to be refugees themselves, they resented the German government’s current generous welfare policies. Additionally, a majority did not believe that the current refugees who are receiving gracious financial support appreciated German generosity but instead took them for granted. They also did not believe that most of these refugees were committed to German values nor would be as committed citizens as they have been. They viewed the majority of the current refugees as “Urlaubsflüchtling” (vacation refugees)—commonly known as economic refugees—who were there to simply enjoy economic security and a comfortable life in Europe.
Frustrations of Current Refugees
The current Muslim refugees I spoke with showed a great deal of frustration and fear that they were misunderstood due to their religious background. While they were grateful for the commitment of Germans and their selfless acts in caring for their needs, they felt rejected due to their religious background or Islamic faith. They resented the fact that their religion had been hijacked by the extremists and terrorists. They perceived themselves as victims of wars and political unrest, in particular ISIS, and as migrants who were merely in search of security and a place to begin a new life. Some hoped they could have stayed home in their own countries. Others were happy and content to have been given the opportunity to experience the “Western dream” or “democracy.”
In order to find their place in the “Western society,” some Muslims converted to Christianity while others held onto their faith and Islamic traditions. Whether these conversions are motivated by spiritual or political or social reasons it is a separate analysis.
The frustration of non-Muslim refugees was that they were not distinguished from Muslim refugees and were discriminated against or rejected simply because they came from Islamic lands or looked Middle Eastern. As Christians, they considered themselves victims of Islamic extremism. They wanted to be treated as if they belonged to German society.
Whether the current refugees are Muslim or non-Muslim, the continuous struggle of finding their places in the German society and assimilating different and often opposing cultures and traditions is an existing frustration that still seems to be unresolved by the majority of the refugees and the government.
What is critical to understand is that everyone in Germany from government agencies to political parties and activists, to proponents and opponents of refugees, to ordinary Germans, as well as former and current refugees, is trying to find a way to overcome the biggest challenge of their recent history: integration and assimilation of refugees into the German society, while preserving German values and strengthening national security.
While the German government has done an outstanding job through their social and educational programs to immerse refugees into the society, there is so much work still ahead. The rise of nationalism and populism is more and more evident than it was in 2015. The country remains divided between the seven groups I had identified in my Article, “7 Differing Opinions in Germany About Refugees” published earlier this year. The struggle continues between the different groups: the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AFD), the proponents of Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, those who believe in their outreach to refugees as a duty to attend to a humanitarian crisis, Christians who view their outreach as a religious duty and evangelism, the foreign nationals, the neutral partners, and the current refugees who are becoming more active members of the society. Yet there is another group that continues to pose a threat to this smooth assimilation of refugees and continues to divide the nation: Muslim extremists or ISIS sympathizers who found their way into the country through immigration.
Germany continues to struggle to deal with the government’s “open arms policy,” trying to find a way to “close the German embrace” and bring the diverse opinions, cultures, traditions, and religions together, while maintaining political and economic stability. What seems to be a reality is that the German society has changed forever, and it will take at least a decade to stabilize itself and find that social, cultural, and political balance. But two things are certain: Germany is resilient, yet it cannot accomplish this task by itself. It will need the support of the international community, the continuous backing of their own citizens, and the cooperation of the refugees in order to work together to define this “new Germany.”