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Writer for refugees

Interview: Sabine Peschel / kbmApril 13, 2015

German author Ingo Schulze is fed up with the way refugees are being treated in the EU. He and 1,000 writers from 26 countries are appealing in an open letter to politicians and society to make Europe more welcoming.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Refugees welcome!", Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Renowned author Ingo Schulze tells DW why he is critical of the European Union's asylum policies and what the international writers organization P.E.N. is demanding of Europe's leaders.

DW: Mr. Schulze, what does "hospitality" mean to you?

Ingo Schulze: You're right. In the broader sense, taking in refugees has to do with hospitality. But a guest is usually someone who comes voluntarily, plans a journey, and is prepared to enter into an unknown situation. A refugee, on the other hand, is in an emergency situation. And we're talking here about the responsibility that we bear as individuals and as states.

You will join other members of P.E.N. on April 13 to present the appeal of 1,000 authors to the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin. What do you expect to come out of this international effort?

It's necessary that the politicians we've elected hear our expectations and wishes. We, as citizens of Europe, have to bear more responsibility for those who need protection and support. Things cannot continue as they are. And as many people as possible need to communicate that in as many places as possible. The opponents of better asylum policies are speaking loudly and violently. We can't just tolerate that and leave it to the police and justice system.

With hindsight, it seems incomprehensible that only a few countries took in Jewish refugees during the Nazi era. Now we are witnessing mass mortality on the Mediterranean. Why aren't we doing more to help?

It's not that those in power are bad people and don't want to spend money on protecting the coastline and implementing rescue operations. It's the political will - and ultimately the will of those who elect the politicians - to make it as difficult as possible for refugees to come to Europe.

Those who want to come to Europe risk their lives. We can only deal with the situation by ignoring it. The idea of subjecting your family to the risk of drowning - and the boat itself is a goal that many lose their lives or health trying to reach - is unbearable. So we ignore it because we're already too busy.

There's no other option but for Europe to face up to the consequences of colonialism, the Cold War and neo-colonialism. In the case of the Second World War, what the Germans did in the world is relatively well documented. Germany was exempted from a lot and received a lot of support, at least in the western part.

We can only view this world as one world and live up to our responsibility. You don't have to be a doomsayer to say that the period of mass immigration has not yet begun.

Ingo Schulze, Copyright: Soeren Stache/dpa
Ingo SchulzeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

"It's not the locals who hope for a fundamental change, but the refugees," you said during a reading in Leipzig in 2007/08, referring to your book "Adam und Evelyn" (a story of love and morality set in 1989 on the brink of the collapse of the East Bloc). What changes are refugees hoping for today?

They're hoping that we grasp the world as one world and own up to our joint responsibility for the circumstances in other places. I don't think that these problems can be solved while focusing on growth and always having more - both ecologically and socially. The polarization in the world corresponds to the ongoing polarization in Germany and all the other industrial countries between those who have a lot and those who have less and less.

Seven years ago, you said that the degree of help and attention that East Germans Adam and Evelyn received in West Germany is inconceivable for today's refugees. Which conditions have to be in place so that refugees can live normal lives and no longer need special attention?

Back then we had the advantage that the East-West conflict was of global interest. Every refugee from the East was a point for the West. Syrian or African refugees are political uninteresting. They won't find normalcy. Everything has to be done so that conflicts are resolved without weapons. War is always the worst option. Arms exports are generally questionable. We have to learn to invest in alluring peace. But that's not new.

In the 1980s, and to a lesser extent in the 1960s and 70s, refugees were celebrated when they managed to escape from the East to the West. Today, Germany is dealing with refugees from crisis regions and not fellow Germans. The EU is trying to curb immigration from Africa and the Middle East. When it comes to human rights, do we apply a double standard?

Yes, we do. I wish the criteria we use for countries like Cuba, Iran or Russia would also apply to the US, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

After the arson attack on a newly renovated home for asylum-seekers in Tröglitz in eastern Germany, many politicians and other public figures have demanded improvements to asylum law. Is that enough?

It depends what the asylum laws look like. I think it's important - and that's the plan - that funding comes from the federal government and the local authorities don't have to decide between a new pre-school and a home for asylum-seekers. That would relax the situation. And it also comes down to each person in that particular town or city.

The Holocaust, which caused thousands of artists, scientists and intellectuals to flee Germany, has led P.E.N. Germany to campaign in particular for persecuted authors and establish the Writers in Exile program. How can persecuted writers be given hope for the future?

The writers in the exile program are drops in the bucket - but better than no drops at all. One of the authors said that the term "future" no longer exists for her. She doesn't know where she will be in a year. The program lasts for three years. P.E.N. can only really help at the beginning and provide language training. But each case is different. For some, it opens up a new world, for others it just delays the catastrophe.

What does exile mean to you?

One has to ask those who've gone through it. It's a topic that's been written about. About how difficult it is to move a family from one city to another. About having to leave everything behind - every plate, every cup, but also friends, family, your language, the food, the climate, everything without knowing what to expect. The [old English] term "exil" used to be translated into German as "suffering."

Ingo Schulze was born in 1962 in Dresden. He grew up in what was then East Germany and now lives in Berlin. Schulze won the prestigious Alfred Döblin and Ernst Willner Prizes for his 1995 book "33 Moments of Happiness."

Fire truck near the refugee home in Tröglitz, Germany, Copyright: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa
The refugee camp in Tröglitz was set on fire on Easter SundayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Schmidt
A boat carrying 200 refugees off the coast of Lampedusa, Copyright: dpa
For many refugees, even reaching the boat involves a great deal of riskImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Italian Navy/Handout