Scenes of German citizens welcoming Syrian refugees this week have been nothing short of astonishing. Bold political leadership and brave public generosity have combined to produce a wave of human kindness towards foreigners that seems more like some sort of liberal fairy tale than anything close to real life. When it comes to asylum seekers we are so used to compassion being drowned out by everything from pragmatic xenophobia to security paranoia to outright racism. But, Germany has reminded us all what true humanity really looks like and its government has proved that rich, powerful nations can be a force for good.
It hasn’t been all about heart-warming scenes either. The numbers are incredible. Germany expects to receive at least 800,000 refugees this year. To put it mildly, this makes an absolute mockery not only of New Zealand’s official refugee quota (750), but of the entire debate within New Zealand about raising it. Should it be 1,000, as the Greens are calling for, or 1,500 as Amnesty International suggest? Forget about all that. To match – in proportional terms – the refugees that Germany will take in this year, New Zealand would need to receive over 40,000.
Such numbers represent a potential game-changer in the way refugee crises are handled. Until now, formal resettlement (i.e. rich countries voluntarily accepting to permanently resettle refugees) has only catered for a tiny proportion of total refugees – New Zealand’s annual quota being a minuscule part of a tiny global effort. The result of this has been the long-term, but temporary displacement of people in refugee camps or other settings that variously sit somewhere on a scale between undignified and inhumane. As has been widely reported, the number of people in such circumstances has reached world record levels, there being now nearly 20 million refugees globally (plus almost another 40 million internally displaced people); people who, according to UNHCR, have been in their present situation for an average of 17 years. Despite this appalling situation, the international community has more or less placed the problem in the too-hard basket. Rich countries have been content to allow refugees to languish in poor ones, providing sufficient funding to humanitarian agencies to prevent total disaster but, except for a lucky few, nothing more than that. The mass resettling of refugees has been a notion that is simply beyond the pale – an idea not only regarded by rich countries as undesirable, but dismissed as logistically impossible, unaffordable and socially detrimental.
The numbers being accepted by Germany (and several other European countries), however, raise for the first time the possibility of resettlement becoming a viable option for a high proportion of refugees. If the world’s rich countries took in, proportion to their own populations, half of what Germany is, all of the world’s refugees could be resettled within three years. Thanks to the leadership the German people have shown, what was previously thought of as impossible may, in fact, be quite realistic.
Problems abound, of course. It remains to be seen exactly how Germany will cope with its massive influx. Well-intentioned Austria, for example, has already declared itself overwhelmed and has closed its borders to further refugees – hopefully temporarily. When will Germany’s capacity reach its breaking point? And how long before those offering beds to refugees grow tired of the novelty and expense of hosting families with whom they struggle to communicate and having nothing in common?
What will be the long-term consequences of integrating new populations? Will its economy cope? Will the social backlash be so strong that it may embolden the nationalist right? Will Germany’s actions serve to encourage further migration, including of those who do not meet globally accepted refugee definitions? Politicians of the lesser sort will move swiftly to peddle such fears, but they are not entirely without basis and Germany has not, it is worth noting, been anywhere near as welcoming to recent influxes of migrants from the Balkan states.
And what about the fairness of offering asylum to those able-bodied refugees that have the financial means to make it to Europe, whilst many of their fellow citizens have neither the money nor the savvy to make it out of the camp? Or of those refugees from much further afield (say, from South Sudan or Myanmar), who have no chance of ever making it to Europe?
These are all questions that need to be taken seriously, but they should not be used as an excuse for the continued marginalization of global refugees. The core of Germany’s moral leadership on this issue has been not to ignore such questions, but to boldly move beyond them by placing the humanitarian imperative as the first consideration. As Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich put it, “Every day I am asking myself how can we accommodate these people, these refugees, how can we give them a feeling that they are safe here in Munich, here in Germany. I am not really thinking about how many people can we afford and can we take here in Munich. That is not the question”.