Germany sees ‘historic moment’, welcomes Syrian refugees
LONDON - “Willkommen” and “Welcome Refugees” read signs at Frankfurt railway station. “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” crowds chanted at the station in Germany’s financial capital.
After crossing the Aegean in small dinghies, braving the elements in Greece, traversing Macedonia and Serbia, enduring Hungary and crossing Austria, thousands of weary refugees reached the “promised land” — Germany. They are the latest group of refugees to arrive in Europe’s most populous country, part of a migration that has been called the most serious refugee crisis since the second world war.
“Germany is the only country that is welcoming us. Look at them! I feel like we are back among family,” Alalie, a 37-year-old civil servant from Damascus told the Washington Post on his arrival in Frankfurt.
Germany, of all EU states, has been the most welcoming of refugees, registering more than 100,000 in August. It is expecting to receive around 800,000 refugees and migrants in 2015 — four times the number recorded in 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised for her bold response to the migrant crisis, with Facebook pages declaring her as “Mama Merkel” and children in refugee camps being named in her honour.
“We consider Merkel better than any other world ruler. She’s the saviour of Syria’s children from the hell of war and extremism. All Syrians love Merkel and her courage,” Syrian refugee Hashem Alsouki told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“Germany is doing what is morally and legally required, nothing more or less,” Merkel said, calling on all other EU countries to accept more refugees.
But for Merkel, this is more than a battle to overcome a specific challenge, this is a fight for the future of the European Union. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees. It won’t be the Europe we wished for,” she said in August.
Berlin also announced that in 2016 it will spend an additional $6.7 billion on helping refugees amid hopes that the European Union will emerge with a coherent response to the crisis by then, lessening the burden that is being shouldered by Germany.
In contrast, Hungary — gateway to the borderless-travel Schengen zone — is taking the opposite tack, building fences and calling on Berlin to stop taking refugees. The latest refugees to reach Germany did so after walking from Budapest to Austria, only from there taking trains to Frankfurt and other German towns, defying official Hungarian efforts to prevent them from completing their long journey.
If Merkel has emerged as the hero of the refugees, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is swiftly emerging as the villain.
“If you’re being overrun, you can’t accept [migrants]. We must not forget that those who are coming in have been brought up under a different religion and represent a profoundly different culture,” Orban wrote in an op-ed published in Germany daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
He warned that the refugees “threaten Europe’s Christian identity,” a stance that resulted in the Guardian newspaper dubbing him “Orban the Awful” in a September 6th editorial.
“The xenophobic narrative coming out of Hungary needs to be tackled head-on, before it encourages more chauvinism elsewhere in Europe. Mr Orban’s hateful statements about Muslims… should be called out for what they are: a disgrace,” the editorial said.
As for Germany, it seems more than happy to accept Muslim refugees and is moving to introduce measures making it easier to deport asylum seekers from so-called secure states such as Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania.
As for Syrians fleeing the war, Germany, and the German people, are embracing them with grass-root efforts to help them. Some are even opening up their own homes.
Merkel acknowledged that the influx of migrants will change Germany in the coming years and seems ready to embrace that change. “We want that change to be positive and we believe we can make that happen,” Merkel said.
Some 70% of Germans say that refugees will contribute to a more interesting life in Germany, while 65% say they will help “rejuvenate” society, according to a recent poll.
“This rejuvenation is urgently needed, as Germany is ageing rapidly and the demographic shift threatens to have an impact on the country’s economic standing,” Astrid Ziebarth, migration fellow at the Europe programme of the German Marshall Fund, told the Guardian.
For Syrians who want to be a part of that change, Germany is the “promised land”. “I feel very safe here. I don’t want to go to another country. I like Merkel, she has a big heart,” said Ola Almasalmeh, 25, to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.