Refugee advocates: The problem is perception and policy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.09.2016
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Refugee advocates: The problem is perception and policy

Chancellor Angela Merkel has highlighted the need to better sell her government's asylum policies to the German public. But is perception the problem? Two refugee advocates offer two different views.

In her first speech to the Bundestag after the poor election showing by her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that the refugee situation was "much better than a year ago." With reference to her coalition partners, she added that "we all have to do our part" in promoting the government's agenda.

Since the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) exploited the refugee issue to garner 20 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Merkel's line has been to "regain public trust" and "show people we're solving the problem." But what do refugee advocacy and support groups think? Do they agree with Merkel that the government has gotten its policy right and just needs to do a better job of selling it?

"I'm very convinced that it's a problem of communication," Katharina Stamm, a European migration policy expert at the German Protestant charity Diakonie, told DW. "I'm very pleased that Merkel's staying her course at the moment despite all of the criticism. But she should make it even more clear what sort of advantages Germany gets from immigration. For example, we need immigration to keep our pension system afloat. In reality, we should be greeting every immigrant to Germany with a handshake and a bouquet of flowers."

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By contrast, Katja Maurer, the spokeswoman for the refugee advocacy organization Medico, believes that Merkel and her government are succumbing to pressure and drifting away from last year's slogan of "we can do this," which had promised that Germany would be able to handle the influx.

"We think it's right that the German government has recognized that it has to do something to relieve the Southern European countries that are overwhelmed," Maurer told DW. But, she said, "the people here who have tried to come to grips with the problem are being abandoned because of all the pressure to tighten up on immigration. The government is yielding to the 15, 20, maybe 30 percent of the population who are upset about migrants, and not the rest."

Speaking as one

Disagreements between the coalition partners are hurting the government's message. Merkel and the CDU have been criticized on the issue by both Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the Christian Social Union - the Bavarian sister party of the CDU - and Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the Social Democrats (SPD). Advocates would like to see policy take precedence over political jockeying.


Merkel, on a visit to a refugee camp in Turkey here, has come under fire from various sides

"I understand that the political pressure is enormous, but I wish Gabriel would wear his 'refugees welcome' button all the time and not just one day in parliament," Maurer said. "From people who should be capable of resolve, I expect resolve. The people who know that there's no choice but to offer relief not only to the countries in Southern Europe, but also Syria, which is producing more and more refugees, they should explain that to people, instead of concentrating only on their election results. But Mrs. Merkel herself knows all of this. She doesn't need me to tell her that."

Getting all of her allies to read from the same playbook will be crucial to Merkel's attempts to attract voter support back from the AfD.

"Infighting is a very damaging because it's grist for the mill of those who don't feel politically represented - not just those who see themselves as excluded, but also the CDU and SPD's traditional clienteles," Stamm said. "Concessions in terms of legislation, rhetoric and government measures don't interest AfD voters in the slightest. They're not capable of differentiating to the necessary extent. The slogan 'we can do this' needs to be made vivid. It's important not to panic and overreact, but to win people over with positive politics."

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The AfD's success has changed Germany's political landscape

'Just a scapegoat'

Both refugee advocates think that government policies and social attitudes should be more "humane" (Stamm) and "empathetic" (Maurer). And both think that the real reason for the current popularity of right-wing parties doesn't have anything directly to do with refugees.

"Social connections are getting more tenuous," Stamm said. "It's harder to accept outsiders if you yourself are insecure. The cement holding society together is getting thinner. That's a general trend in Europe."

Maurer is even more explicit about the link between anti-migrant sentiment and domestic social problems in Germany.

"We need to work on the divisions within society and try to reduce the gap between rich and poor," she said. "These are the real issues. The refugees are just a scapegoat onto which people project their fears of social decline. It's a joke to think that 1 million refugees could be responsible for people's economic fears. We need to be talking about that."


Many of the refugees are fleeing the war in Syria

Opposing predictions

The two advocates disagree about whether Merkel will be able to sell the electorate on her refugee policy. Maurer said any such efforts were likely to fail if the government doesn't address the conflict in Syria and social inequities in Germany itself.

"I think it will only work if there are political changes - and not just where refugees are concerned," Maurer said. "It's not a communication problem: It's a political one. The AfD is getting votes in places with next to no refugees, so it's clearly a case of projection. The situation won't change if there are no more refugees. We need to know what the sources of people's fears are and focus politics on that."

Stamm offered a more hopeful prognosis, predicting that the AfD will have difficulty functioning as a governing party, and citing successful examples of refugee integration in Germany's past.

"I'm relatively optimistic," Stamm said. "We had a similar phenomenon in Germany in the 1990s, with 400,000 refugees from Bosnia and Eastern European countries like Russia. We had high unemployment back then. Germany was doing worse economically. And Germany dealt with it really well. Unfortunately, we had restrictions on political asylum, but the economy profited. I think we learned from that and that we're still learning. Merkel needs politicians who can stress the positives: that we live in a global village - that we're an immigration society and that that's a good thing."

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