Bonn: There is a fine line between racism and trying to protect one’s own country from ‘unwanted’ influences. Germany is desperately trying to maintain its balance and not tip over.
A picture titled ‘Germany 2030’ has been doing the rounds on Twitter. It shows a small blonde child surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned children. The caption on the picture says, “Where do you come from?”
The image has been on the Internet for a long while now and has been used by many right-wing groups in Europe who are trying to suggest how immigrants will take over the continent if nothing is done to keep them away.
On Sunday, Erika Steinbach, a member of parliament from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, tweeted the image, causing many in the opposition to demand strict action against her.
— Erika Steinbach (@SteinbachErika) February 27, 2016
At some level, the image could have been perceived as solely representing people’s misgivings about refugees coming into Europe, were it not for the fact that the picture seemed to be of Indian children in an Indian village, shocked at seeing a blonde, white child for the first time, likely for the first time.
Seen from that perspective, the picture seems harmless, almost comical. But its new avatars with suggestive slogans indicate how the present anti-refugee sentiment fosters right-wing activists who distort and misinterpret things to suit their ideologies.
The tide turns
Images of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and arriving at Munich’s central station flooded the Internet last year. There was a huge surge of sympathy from all over the world when pictures emerged of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had died as his family crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
Soon Merkel announced she was opening her country to migrants. To the citizens of Germany who expressed scepticism at the country’s ability to absorb so many foreigners from a conflict zone, Merkel said, “Wir schaffen das,” or “We can do it.”
Hordes of volunteers prepared food, collected clothes and helped set up temporary camps for people coming into the country. Countries like Greece opened up their borders and allowed refugees to freely pass through the Balkans into Austria and then into Germany.
However, soon many countries, beginning with Hungary, began expressing their dissent, which spread across Europe. Most European countries refused a quota to share migrants among themselves. Even in Germany, voices against rehabilitating migrants grew louder, with several small attacks on refugee shelters and repeated pleas from regional heads of government to stop the flow of refugees into the country.
Anti-refugee sentiment increased after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, igniting fears that jihadists could have come into the country unnoticed among the throngs of asylum seekers. But emotions took a complete turn for the worse in the beginning of 2016 after reports that over 1,000 migrant men had sexually harassed and robbed hundreds of women at Cologne’s central station and in cities like Hamburg and Stuttgart over the new year weekend.
No plan B
These incidents and subsequent pressure from regional governments spurred Germany into introducing several changes in its asylum law. Countries like Morocco and Tunisia were declared safe and refugees from there would be sent back if they came here. Albanians and Kosovars, considered financial migrants, would also be sent back. In the latest set of rules, people not considered personally persecuted would not be able to call their families to Germany before two years are up. Germany and the EU are also desperately trying to get Turkey on board to absorb Syrian immigrants before they cross over to Greece.
Merkel is finding it hard to keep the anti-immigrant sentiment under control. In an interview over the weekend, she announced she was going to stick to her current migrant policy and work towards agreements with nations like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to stem the flow of asylum seekers. “There is no Plan B,” she said.
But regional support for Merkel’s refugee policy is decreasing. Austria and the West Balkan countries, including Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia, have opted to close their borders to traveling migrants.
Nearly two weeks ago, videos emerged showing protesters in Bautzen, in the eastern state of Saxony, blocking a bus full of refugees for four hours and shouting aggressive slogans.
A day later, a planned refugee shelter burned in Clausnitz, also in Sachsen, as onlookers cheered and blocked firefighters from doing their job.
It would be wrong to say that such incidents are representative of the sentiment in the Germany, as they have been criticised by prominent leaders and the common people who continue to work towards integrating migrants in the country. However, the 1.1 million refugees that arrived last year and the 3.6 million who are projected be living in Germany by 2020 will prompt the country to dig deeper into its idea of what the German nation is and who its citizens are.
Manasi Gopalakrishnan is a journalist and researcher based in Bonn, Germany.