Pictures of Munich's main train station in the first weeks in September 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving every day and were being afforded a warm welcome, have remained in many of our minds. These images still give us goose-bumps: applause and “welcome” cries, thousands of helpers, tonnes of donations. This was the inception of the “welcoming culture.” Angela Merkel's “Wir schaffen das” (“Yes, we can”) also goes back to these days.
Cleaning up a “sullied image”
Vaniessa Rashid was on the ground up close from the very outset. It was she who initiated aid for refugees. “It was a real emergency. Right after we issued the first appeal for help, hundreds of helpers volunteered their time. It was simply amazing,” recalls the 24-year-old political science student. From grandmother to small child, student to unemployed person, from a suit-and-tie executive to anti-fascist activist: they were all united by the spontaneous desire to help out.
This euphoria that reverberated throughout Germany and the entire world last autumn was also fuelled by another notion, according to Boris Nieswand, professor of sociology at the University of Tübingen. “It was an opportunity to replace a sullied image and feelings of guilt associated with the Holocaust and a society dominated by ‘squares and conformists’ with an image of a young, human-rights-oriented Germany open to the world - and then communicate this new image to the world.” As head of the inter-disciplinary network “Foundations of Research on Refugees,” Nieswand studies sociological aspects of migration.
This sullied image that Nieswand was referring to has since then been festooned with even more unflattering hues and nuances - for example, thousands of people shouting out xenophobic slogans at demonstrations or setting refugee homes on fire. Five times as many crimes were committed against refugee homes in 2015 than in 2014.
Is the commitment on behalf of refugees a sort of “cathartic gesture,” as the researcher Boris Nieswand believes? A representative study conducted by the German Protestant Church at any rate indicates that one in every ten Germans made a commitment to helping refugees last year. Not even that many people are voluntary members of sports clubs, otherwise the most popular field of voluntary activity in Germany.
Cologne: a turning point
The spontaneous help provided at Munich's main train station - whatever the individual motives might have been - served as the seed germ for organised structures, as Vaniessa Rashid describes it. The helpers from back then are now giving language lessons at refugee homes in the suburbs of Munich, and they have maintained the friendships with refugees they met back then at the train station. A community of 40,000 people has come into existence, linked up online, providing volunteers at other places with advice. "All of the helpers are still out there," says Rashid.
But they are also noticing that the wave of euphoria has ebbed. Not only because government agencies are overwhelmed by the task and European borders have been sealed off. Many refugee helpers experienced a turning point at another German main train station, recounts Rashid: New Year's Eve 2015 in Cologne, when more than 600 women became victims of sexual harassment. Numerous asylum-seekers were allegedly among the perpetrators. Scepticism or even fear of new refugee homes has mounted since then, according to the helper.
The researcher Boris Nieswand also views New Year's Eve to be a "turning point" in societal perception. He considers "fears that must be taken seriously" among the population to be an understatement. Especially the political arena, he notes, is cultivating a "mood of menace and threat". Touting the spectre of immigration, the right-wing political party AfD all of a sudden turned in double-digit results in elections that took place in three state elections to German Landtags in the spring of this year.
The question of the national state
Austria has narrowly averted the election of a right-wing demagogue as president. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The list could be further extended, from one European country to the next. But everywhere in Europe it boils down to a negative attitude towards refugees.
"We are at a crossroads. The population is polarised on a massive scale," is Nieswand's assessment. At stake is the very future of the national state - a construct that is in and of itself outmoded in the era of globalisation and international problems. The notion of the national state explains the rejection of foreign elements and the claim that it is up to the national state to protect and care for its privileged citizens.
"Economic envy" has also played a role in increasingly negative attitudes towards refugees. The integration barometer issued by the Experts Council of German foundations on migration and indicates that concerns among the populace that refugees could constitute a threat to German prosperity rose precipitously between early 2015 and early 2016.
By the same token, Nieswand adds, a country under severe demographic pressure is well advised to nurture a positive image towards immigration. Also - but especially - if the level of prosperity is to be maintained.
The text was originally published in German and first appeared in June 2016 on the blog platform of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Forum Berlin – Sagwas.
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