Let’s not be idle: a German perspective on the refugee crisis

11 December 2015 | Mirja Brand

Mirja Brand is Resolution:Possible’s most recent addition to the research team. After graduating from the London School of Economics and Political Science with an MSc in Social Anthropology, Mirja returned to Germany and is volunteering for a German humanitarian organisation working with refugees. Here she shares her perspective on the current refugee situation in Germany.

The term ‘Willkommenskultur’, meaning ‘welcome culture’, has been coined by German and later international media to describe the embracing attitude with which German citizens have welcomed refugees. Munich, often the first place of arrival for thousands of refugees where numbers on one day in September reached 12,200, has lead an example of this ‘Willkommenskultur’ with national and international media praising the Bavarian capital for its open-heartedness and dedicated willingness to help, thanks to its overwhelmingly large number of committed volunteers. Most aid organisations had to turn down new volunteers and called a stop for donated items as capacities where already exhausted. Cities like Munich and Berlin have publicly thanked its citizens for their spontaneous and committed readiness to help. Where bureaucratic slowness failed its purpose, it was the individual but ultimately united act of people who took matters into their own hands and effectively organised themselves to make things work. Food and clothes were distributed, German and English lessons organised and volunteers found to support refugees with formalities.

refugees; Germany; Munich Central Station; Willkommenskultur;

One of the central points of arrival for refugees coming to Germany: Munich Central Station. | Photo: Mirja Brand.



Not in all parts of  the country, however, were refugees met with such a warm welcome. In the east of Germany, a number of demonstrations against refugees and attacks have taken place. The right-wing and anti-Islamic movement PEGIDA, with its headquarters in Dresden, have led many such demonstrations and tried to stir up hatred against refugees. They see the challenge to integrate such a high number of refugees as an unsolvable task. Many openly denounce Chancellor Angela Merkel for her politics, with some people even calling her a traitor against the people. While Time magazine has named Merkel ‘Person of the Year’ because of her courage and her perseverance, not all were in favour of her politics, both on a national as well as international level. Thus, the internal divide within Germany runs deep. Fear of ‘the Other’ plays a substantial part in the negative attitude that many have adopted. Public condemnations of politicians and internal political disputes over how to handle the situation have increased doubts among German citizens. They fear for their own as well as their country’s future and are torn between local and national differences in opinion. The topic creates a deep divide not only between political opponents but also increasingly between neighbours, friends and family. This demonstrates the need to remain active.

Whether Germany can maintain its ‘Willkommenskultur’ depends on its citizens’ willingness to remain active. If German generosity now weakens, the cold will be felt even harder in this time of the year. What has started off as an overwhelmingly open call for action should not run risk of standing still. To make the transition of refugees arriving in Europe run smoothly and to establish an inclusive society where they are not treated like second-class citizens, we need to continue to keep our minds open and to listen to both sides. Different cultural backgrounds can sometimes make living in the same world feel like living in different universes. In order to make it a decent place where everyone can live peacefully and is granted equal rights we need an active understanding of each other’s perspective. Let’s not be idle – there’s a lot of work to do.

 Writing and research – Mirja Brand

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