More than a million refugees came to Germany last year, and applied for asylum. How will this influx of immigrants affect German society, and how will the country deal with these new challenges?
Last year, Germany took in more refugees than ever before. Efforts to register and find accommodations for them have been chaotic at times. Right-wing groups have organized anti-refugee demonstrations, and there's been a big increase in the number of attacks on refugees and the facilities that house them. There's been a strident debate in the media and among politicians about how Germany should deal with these new challenges. Many Germans are concerned about how the refugees' presence will affect their local community; it could also promote racial prejudice among some segments of the population.
Some Germans are afraid of refugees; others offer help
News reports that appear to confirm suspicions that these "foreigners" don't think or behave like Europeans, or have engaged in criminal activity, can lead to explosive debates and potentially dangerous generalizations. Politicians have approved tougher penalties for refugees convicted of crimes, and more restrictive asylum laws -- and they're working to reduce the number of refugees who try to travel to Germany. At the same time, many people are volunteering their time to help the refugees find a home here, and make the transition into German society. They collect donations, work in refugee housing facilities, give German language lessons, and accompany refugees on trips to the doctor's or the local government office. Some have sponsored refugees directly; others have opened their homes to them.
Can we really make this work?
This appears to be a clash between two different countries. One Germany welcomes the refugees, in line with chancellor Merkel's principle: "We can do this!" But another Germany is nervous about the refugees, even fearful or downright angry. Some Germans view the situation through rose-colored glasses. Others are deeply concerned about the changes the refugees may bring to the country in general, and their community in particular. Many are worried about the possible spread of Islamic influence, and allegedly misogynist attitudes among male refugees. Other concerns include a possible increase in crime rates, increased competition in the job market, and changes to their established way of life.
Isolation or Openness?
Germany is changing, no question -- but societies are in a constant state of flux anyway. The Germany of the 1930s is completely different from the Germany of the 1950s. The Germany of 2016 is different from the Germany of the 1970s. A country that exists in a globalized world cannot afford to shut itself off entirely - so it has to learn to accept change, and decide which values are most important (for example, human rights, democracy, mutual respect, tolerance, and equality without regard to gender, race, or religion), and which outside cultural influences it is prepared to accept. This process requires a society to reflect on its strengths, and to try to understand the traditions, history, behavior, and values of other peoples -- without dismissing them out of hand.
People have now come to Germany from many different parts of the world -- including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Some of them will break the law, and will suffer the appropriate consequences. But most of these people were forced to leave their homes, and came to this country because they want to build a better life for themselves and their families. And if we are prepared to understand them and what they've gone through, perhaps we'll be less afraid of them, and less likely to pre-judge them. Perhaps we'll realize that immigration and the new cultural influences that come with it can offer many advantages to a society that is open, tolerant, and democratic.