the 'Es Reicht' demo on 1710 in Berlin. Photo: Tim Lüddemann

This is not a refugee crisis

  • December 2, 2015

Borders & Beyond

This isn’t a refugee crisis; it’s a crisis of racism, of hatred, of information. For Europeans it’s also an identity crisis: do we still know who “we” are?

Right-wing demonstrators wave French and Israeli flags and raise home-made banners with slogans of blood and the German Volk. Facing them, behind metal railings, anti-fascists are chanting: “Kein Mensch ist illegal! Bleiberecht überall!”—No human is illegal! The right to stay for all!

A line of police and twenty meters of asphalt separate the two sides.

— November 2015, Berlin, Germany

Asylum seekers find a Germany divided. Willkommenskultur, a welcoming culture, accompanied the first wave of newcomers, as many Germans opened up their homes to refugees in heart-warming displays of solidarity. But a slow fuse of intolerance also burns, fueled by the rise of the far-right, the government’s handling of the situation and reporting in the media.

As divisions deepen, citizens worried by increasing far-right mobilization and the government’s inaction are doing something about it—from the grassroots.

But this is not a refugee crisis.

Far-right on the rise

Pegida, an acronym meaning Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, is a concept that scales—like a Silicon Valley start-up. Change the first letter and you have Legida in Leipzig, Bärgida in Berlin and the aptly named Thügida in Thüringen. In Düsseldorf you have Düdida, which, if repeated, makes a catchy tune: Düdida-didadidida.

Demonstrations by Pegida in the East-German city of Dresden peaked earlier in the year as 25,000 people demonstrated on January 12 with banners reading “Yesterday Paris, Tomorrow Berlin”—referencing the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But after photographs of leader Lutz Bachman sporting a Hitler moustache were spread on social media, Pegida lost momentum.

Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or AfD) is another far-right contender, leader Björn Höcke recently promised “a thousand years of Germany!” — though how the prospect of one-thousand years of anything could excite an entire nation remains unclear.

The most extreme far-right group is the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands or NPD), which German governments tried to ban in 2003 and 2011 without success.

Although considered “a threat to the constitutional order”, the party receives taxpayer money because it has seats in local government—enabling it to organize and arrange, for example, a party congress. In the U.S., this would be equivalent to the Federal government funding the Ku Klux Klan—and giving them a centrally-heated venue in which to sew hoods.

But this is not a refugee crisis; it’s a racism crisis.

Explaining the rise of the right-wing populists

Largely through social media, by portraying themselves as outcasts from mainstream politics vilified by the Lügenpresse (the “lying media”), Pegida have created a contagious, populist mood—full of swirling myths, conspiracy theories and paranoia, yet fiercely patriotic.

This populist mood is contagious precisely because of its simplicity: it’s us or them, the people versus the elite. When Pegida supporters chant Wir sind das Volk! (“We are the People!”—a popular protest slogan from 1980s East Germany), they throw sand in the eyes of the elite.

Political theorist Benjamin Arditi argues that populists are equivalent to an awkward guest at a dinner party who drinks too much, flirts with your wife, but cuts through “all this bullshit political correctness” to the truth. Yet there is one important difference between recent left populists and their opposites: an “awkward guest” from the right just might burn your house down after leaving.

We have seen across Europe that populist leaders do not need to seize power to change politics; they just need to pull politics in their overall direction—and bring everyone else along. As Cas Mudde, an expert on far-right populism notes:

They do not have to sway voters to a new position, they have to shift them to a new issue: away from socio-economic issues, like (un)employment, and towards the socio-cultural issues like immigration.

Populist far-right parties like those in the UK, Sweden, Holland and France pull societies to the right, locking politics into endless debates about the “soul of the nation” and disabling the very capacity needed to deal with the plight of refugees.

We also live in a world in which public trust in politicians and the media has largely “left the room”. We distrust the stories we are told—but have no new stories to replace them with. As Hannah Arendt observed: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

This is fertile ground for a contagious message aimed at “external enemies”—and one which has been translated into action.

Across Germany there have been over 500 violent attacks on refugees and refugee accommodation this year. And the violence is not confined to refugees. Journalists have been attacked and sent obituaries bearing their own names. In October, Cologne politician Henriette Reker was stabbed in the neck by a far-right sympathizer.

This is not a refugee crisis; it’s a hate crisis.

Government and the press

“Ever-changing, never-moving,” is the government’s response. In September, Angela Merkel announced that Germany’s doors were open, in contrast to Hungary where razor wire was rolled out and walls constructed. This open-door policy has caused splits within the coalition government, especially between Merkel’s CDU and its sister party from southern Germany, the CSU, which wants much stricter controls.

But the claim that Germany’s coalition government is “refugee-friendly” is questionable, given the history of the CDU/CSU in regards to refugee policy. Proposed changes in refugee law mean that refugees will receive payments in kind, instead of cash, and rejected asylum seekers who do not leave Germany voluntarily will incur financial penalties; though issuing a fine to a refugee with no money, or even a refugee with money, seems odd—like punishing a fish for being wet.

Media reporting has not escaped criticism. For example, the BBC, Reuters and The Guardian all released the same story—emanating from right-wing German tabloid Bild—that 1.5 million asylum seekers were expected in Germany this year. But figures from the Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees show that from January to October 2015 there were only 331,226 initial asylum applications, 53 percent of them from Syrians.

Strangely, after the Bild “scoop” was published across international media outlets, deputy government spokesman Georg Streiter denied any knowledge of the report on which Bild based their story, saying: “No one is aware of this paper.”

This is not a refugee crisis; it’s an information crisis.

Grassroots organizations fill the void

In this environment of rising intolerance, and with the state unable or unwilling to deal with the refugee issue, grassroots organizations have stepped in. In Moabit, West Berlin, where the refugee registration center is situated, chaos reigns. There are endless queues for registration, a lack of qualified staff to process applicants, and a lack of medical treatment for the sick.

As frustration mounts, fights break out between different ethnic groups. Security guards have been accused of beating refugees, and one guard was caught on camera calling for asylum seekers to be sent to concentration camps.

Some have accused the authorities of feigning incompetence to discourage new arrivals. As the refugees themselves put it: “First be welcomed, then freeze to death.”

Volunteers working for Moabit hilft (“Moabit helps”) provide food, clothing, medical assistance, arrange translators, and give support to incoming refugees—who speak little or no German. These refugees have undergone long, stressful journeys, often traveling from overcrowded refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq—countries which house the overwhelming majority of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

On 17 October Moabit hilft organized a demonstration to highlight the increasing incompetence of the Berlin authorities, with the title Es reicht!—“It’s Enough!”

Hundreds of Berliners came to Alexanderplatz, raising home-made signs with slogans such as: “Berlin Senate: do your job.” Moabit hilft spokesperson Diana Henniges explained how the refugee center cannot deal with the existing backlog of cases, let alone new cases. Without the support of her organization, children sleep on the pavement outside. Live music from refugee musicians filled the air, and the message from the refugee community was clear: “we’re not here to complain, we just want to live somewhere safe.”

Moreover, as far-right groups have formed, grassroots resistance to intolerance has grown. When Pegida sympathisers in Berlin—under the name Bärgida—started marching, a coalition of local organizations and individuals formed No Bärgida to resist.

Michael Koschitzki, executive member of SAV (Socialist Alternative) and one of the organizers of No Bärgida describes the initial reaction to Bärgida: “People thought it was just a few lunatics, hardly anyone saw them as a risk.”

“Bärgida started moving around the Regierungsviertel—the government district. Later they marched to the refugee registration center in Moabit, West Berlin,” Michael explains. “That’s when people decided to act.”

Even though No Bargida have been demonstrating against the far-right week after week, the response from the traditional left and trade unions has been disappointing. Michael Koschitzki states: “It’s crucial that unions understand they have to act against this racist threat. Refugee homes are burning, but next time it will be trade union buildings.”

In Pegida’s home city of Dresden, an alliance of groups working under the name Nazifrei! Dresden stellt sich quer (“Nazi-free! Dresden blocks”) has been organizing resistance against far-right groups since 2009. Silvio Lang, speaker of Dresden Nazi Frei, says:

Saxony is not Germany. We are the right-wing part of Germany, and there is terror here against anyone who is not “German”. It is no longer safe for people who do not fit in with these [far-right] ideologies, and it will get worse because the police, the judiciary, the government, do not understand the problem and its origins.

Silvio adds: “You have to fight racism with everything you have.”

The refugee crisis and “us”

This summer, asylum seekers could be seen live on TV walking across the European continent seeking sanctuary; a biblical wave of people—but with no Christian welcome. The European response has been slow, piecemeal, and reluctant, with some EU members raising walls and laying down razor wire.

The refugee issue is used by far-right, populist groups to build power and extend beyond their small base of supporters, especially in the few countries willing to open their doors, like Sweden and Germany. The issue is also used by domestic elites for political ends.

But do political leaders understand what is happening? We are moving towards a divided Europe: those who want to help, and those who want to hate—with the majority unsure and anxious. Grassroots citizens’ initiatives are working across these divides, growing from the soil of government failure. But grassroots initiatives have limited resources, and can only do so much.

This isn’t a refugee crisis at all; it’s a crisis of racism, of hatred, of information. For Europeans, it’s also an identity crisis. As theorist Cas Mudde warns: “In essence, refugee policy is not so much about who ‘they’ are but about who ‘we’ are.”

Perhaps there is more that separates us from each other, than separates us from refugees. Perhaps we don’t know who “we” are anymore. And that’s the real crisis.

Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh has a master’s degree in East European Studies. He writes about social movements, grassroots organizations and Southeast Europe.

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