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Refugees: The End of the German Illusion

Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order and refugee ban were harshly condemned by the German Chancellor. Several media outlets present Merkel as the last democratic hope of the West. But how have the refugees who arrived in Germany fared? And what of those who attempted to enter the European nation and now languish in Turkish camps? Was the acceptance of refugees by Germany driven by humanitarian ideals or by economic interests and the need to preserve the integrity of capitalist Europe? In this article, we present an assessment of 2016 and German policy in relation to the refugee crisis.

Sebastian Vargas

February 8, 2017
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This article was originally published in Marxist World, Issue 3, January 2017.

In an interview published in August 2016 by Süddeutsche Zeitung, Angela Merkel stated, “We have ignored the refugee problem for too long.” One might think that, for the first time, the German chancellor is showing sympathy for the lives of millions. Does this mean that the head of state assumes any responsibility for the death of 5,079 people in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, after the closure of the Balkan route increased the flow of migrants traversing the dangerous journey from North Africa to Italy? Will Merkel, “western democracies’ last hope,” as she has been referred to by the press following Trump’s victory in the US, provide a humanitarian response to the millions of people living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps in Turkey, Greece and in Germany? Will the German government take responsibility for ascertaining the whereabouts of more than 9,000 refugee children now missing in Germany?

The events of the past year demonstrate otherwise.

According to data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 65.3 million people are currently displaced by conflicts worldwide. It is the worst refugee situation since World War II. In 2015, this unprecedented humanitarian crisis arrived on European soil. Germany, the main destination of refugees, received almost 1.1 million asylum-seekers. In her New Year’s Eve speech of 2015, Merkel said that she intended to “reduce the number of refugees in a sustainable and permanent manner.”

While the humanitarian crisis continued, this decision was carried out and Germany drastically reduced the number of refugees in 2016–this, despite the fact that Germany achieved a fiscal surplus of €19bn in 2016. The solid performance of the German GDP contradicts the fears raised across the political spectrum that the migrants represented an economic threat.

No such economic success is found in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan or Somalia. These are places plagued by war, famine and the actions of groups like the so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram. Their inhabitants seek simply the possibility of survival in countries where these conditions no longer exist. Germany and the European Union therefore face a contradiction. For centuries, European countries have contributed decisively to the devastation of vast areas of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. As a result, they now face mass migrations of people into a Europe in which–even in Germany (Huber 2015)–there are already millions of precarious and unemployed workers (Mercatante 2016).

At the beginning of the humanitarian crisis in September 2015, the Merkel government was determined to manage this movement of people. Pietro Basso, Italian sociologist and researcher on international migration, wrote, “The European Union would like to manage these events, regulating the movement of immigrants according to its own needs and avoiding explosive situations which arise either as a result of revolts by disillusioned immigrants, the anti-immigrant reactions of native workers, or – and this is the hypothesis most feared by governments – joint struggles between the native workers and migrants” (Ideas de Izquierda, January 2016). This attempt to regulate the influx manifested itself in the formation of a bloc of more ‘open’ countries around Germany: those with the possibility of putting the refugees to work. This bloc has sought to offload the unpopular task of policing the flow of migrants to the countries of southern Europe–Greece and Italy in particular–or to their neighboring countries.

But after the closure of the Balkan route and the consequences of this decision in Hungary, the northern bloc broke down. There were partial border closures and a temporary suspension of the Schengen Agreement, first between Sweden and Denmark and then between Denmark and Germany. German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière (Christian Democrats – CDU), promoted the idea that his country, along with the Benelux states, Austria and the Scandinavian countries, could found a ‘mini-Schengen.’ As the breakdown escalated, the Federal State of Bavaria followed the example of Switzerland and imposed the confiscation of valuables from refugees: seizing any belongings–both money and jewelry–in excess of the value of €750.

The fracturing of Europe was accompanied by rising discord within the German government, a crisis which almost split its governing coalition with the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, and led to the electoral ‘successes’ of the proto-fascist AfD (Alternative for Germany) in regional elections. March was a key month for the ‘refugee crisis’ question. The European Union, with the German chancellor as its main operator, signed a sinister pact that gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan control of European borders; all of it a metaphor for the Europe of capital. Since then, the EU, inches away from violating international law on the right of asylum, can send all refugees who enter illegally to Turkey.

The agreement is completed with a ‘one in, one out’ rule: for each person returned to Turkey, Europe pledged to receive a Syrian refugee. But with a limit: according to Merkel, the EU will accept a maximum of 72,000 asylum applications over two years.

According to UNHCR figures, there are 1.9 million Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey. The vast majority–along with those from Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan–have two options: to remain in the poor conditions of those camps or to return to their countries. This pact is crowned with €6 billion handed over to Turkey in return: a ‘trade deal’ at the expense of refugees’ lives. This deal totally ignores widespread denunciations of the Erdoğan regime for its repressive military offensive against the Kurdish people and the imprisonment of internal political opposition, which has soared after the failed coup in July 2016.

With this agreement, European governments have attempted to end the migration crisis on their external border and head off extreme right movements inside Europe by adopting much of their programs. Equally, Merkel’s opposition to national border controls within the EU is not for humanitarian but economic reasons: any alteration of Schengen would deal a serious blow to the German economy, whose exports (60 percent of which are transported by land) are mainly to other European countries.

Refugees: The most oppressed layer of workers

The reason Merkey initially decided to play the ‘welcome’ role–especially toward Syrians—was in part to demonstrate a certain German ‘humanity’ and ‘openness,’ but above all to serve the requirements of big business and the German economy. Her ideal is to have gastarbeiter (foreign guest workers of the 1960s and 1970s from southern Europe and north Africa who to spend one or two years supporting the West German economic miracle before returning home) at Germany’s disposal once more. As Basso describes, these are ‘migrant workers, single, without family – and if possible, stripped of any social bond that may give them strength’ (2015). That is, labor prepared and constrained by its own conditions, forced to accept any sacrifice, in contrast to the earlier migrants who are already settled. According to the Federal Statistical Office’s December 2015 report, more than 20 percent of Germany has a migrationshintergrund (an immigrant background).

In countries shaped by immigration–especially their metropolitan centers—acting to merge and nullify national differences, a mass composed of these ‘empirically universal individuals’ arises. They become workers directly inserted into universal history who Karl Marx and Frederick Engels foresaw in The German Ideology as products of the universal development of the productive forces, the task of capitalism: ‘These individuals do not appear today for the first time, nor do they necessarily lack, by nature, the weaknesses and prejudices of the other workers. But, like never before, their mass existence on a global scale can foster rapprochement and fraternization among workers globally’ argues Basso. ‘Partly because of the increasingly complete globalization of the labor market and because of the attacks in imperialist countries on the conditions of the working class’, he writes, ‘A growing number of proletarians are seeing the progressive worsening of their own condition and begin to feel like migrants in their own land’ (Bosso 2015).

Trapped between repression and deportation

Prior to the European-Turkey agreement, the CDU with the SPD’s support made important reforms to asylum laws with the aim of alleviating the serious crisis within the ruling coalition. The ‘Second Asylum Package’ tightened the restrictions on refugees from January 2016. It made deportations easier as well as further limiting residency laws – to the point that even a suspended sentence can lead to deportation. In addition, the reform obliges all asylum-seekers who receive temporary protection to wait two years until they can be reunited with their families. This leaves their children and relatives, remaining in war-torn countries like Syria, risking death and everything else this situation entails. To make matters worse, these same refugees, separated from their families by the German state, are also asked to ‘rapidly integrate’ into Germany.

To this, add the fact that Afghanistan, Tunisia and Kosovo are now considered ‘safe countries of origin’ and the same status is foreseen for Mali and other African countries following the negotiations held by the chancellor on her tour of Africa in October. Refugees from these countries are quickly registered in the ‘reception centers’ and then deported. To do this, the German government does not hesitate to open new prisons like the one near Hamburg airport, which is destined to accommodate refugees awaiting deportation. In mid-December 2016, Germany began mass deportations of Afghan asylum seekers, provoking demonstrations by protestors who say it is not safe to return there.

Another central aspect of the reform has been the pressure of the ‘labor market.’ On one hand, it is very difficult for refugees to find work. These laws dictate that they can work only if there is no one in the European Union who can fill the role. But alongside this, an employment plan for 100,000 refugees was implemented as an exception that put the value of the working hour between €0.80 and €1.05 – when in Germany the minimum wage is €8.50 per hour. Already, many German companies including giants like the Deutsche Post employ refugees under these conditions. Thus, large capital is able to super-exploit migrants without family for a (minimum) period of two years.

The living conditions of refugees in Germany are very complex. The majority live in reception centers for many months and are housed in containers, empty shops or barracks, most of which are distant from cities. There, refugees face daily physical and psychological harassment by guards. These camps have serious infrastructure problems with unhygienic and unhealthy conditions. As described by those living in the Karsfeld camp located 27 kilometers from Munich during a hunger strike for decent housing: ‘For more than a year, we have been in this camp where there are only 30 bathrooms for 300 people. Because the toilets are not clean, diseases spread quickly. If one of us gets sick, we all do.’ They added, ‘We must pay out of our pocket if we have to go to the hospital, but as most of us are not allowed to work, we do not have the means to access medical care’ (Youth Against Racism 2016).

The reactionary turn and racist attacks

The CDU-CSU-SPD coalition government, for all its internal differences, has always found itself in agreement around repressive measures against refugees. It initially allowed one group of better-qualified workers from Syria to enter the country to work, but then hardened its stance with the aforementioned asylum laws. This state agenda, fuelled by pressure from the right wing of the coalition and the AfD, has served to divide the population and sow racism.

The situation fostered by the xenophobic action of the state has propelled the rise of the AfD (a phenomenon preceded by the PEGIDA movement). The most recent electoral success of the party, headed nationally by Frauke Petry, was in the elections of September in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – passing the Merkel’s CDU in the state where her own constituency is located. The result put the AfD in second place with 21 percent of the votes. This party challenges the government from the right and produces virulently racist propaganda that renders real results. However, last December Merkel became even more hardline, fearing it could impact her upcoming election campaign. She has since said she will support a ban on burkas ‘wherever possible’ in the country and has also ordered boats patrolling the Mediterranean to pick up migrants and send them back to Africa.

Although there are currently no pogroms in Germany, we are seeing the strongest wave of racist violence in 23 years. In 2015, 1,031 right-wing crimes were reported in Germany–five times more than the year prior. In the first eight months of 2016, the number escalated to a total of 6,548 crimes perpetrated by the far right. In these attacks, 399 people were wounded. Reception centers continue to be targeted by far-right attacks: a total of 665 crimes against these camps have been recorded throughout the country during the same period. The ‘unofficial’ figure would be much higher, given the complicity between police, intelligence services and ultra-right groups as previously shown by the scandal of the National Socialist Underground.

The current challenge in Germany

This shift to the right in the political landscape was further accentuated by the attacks in Bavaria during the month of July and will deepen as a consequence of the recent terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market by the so-called Islamic State (Vargas 2016). In a Europe in which imperialist wars have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Middle East and Africa, creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and fueling reactionary phenomena like so-called Islamic State, it was not surprising that after the events of July the German state pushed forward a major internal militarization in the style of Hollande.

Since then different parts of the political spectrum have been demanding that the armed forces intervene in internal affairs and the implementation of the Integration Law, which further oppresses refugees, is being prepared. The bourgeois parties have only one answer to the ‘migration crisis’: the restriction of democratic rights and intimidation through repression and deportation. All this is happening without an independent position being taken up by the union representatives and politicians of the working class, which might face down the rightward turn and oppose militarization. But, as Basso asks, ‘How deeply has the stigmatization of refugees permeated within the working class? It is difficult to say.’ The only thing that can be said with certainty is that solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers has been exclusively expressed by youth and workers.

We must prepare ourselves to deal with the persecution of young people, particularly young migrants and refugees. The movement against the reactionary Integration Law in Bavaria (which involves compulsory classes on a scale which is barely possible to provide and requires asylum seekers to pass rigorous citizenship tests if they are to avoid deportation) brought together more than 3,000 people in the streets at the end of October in the face of police repression (Klasse gegen Klasse 2016). The various groups and national alliances combining young students, workers, anti-fascist and left-wing organizations are taking daily action against racism, war and the rise of the extreme right.

The Youth Against Racism committee, which is co-led by young people from RIO, an organization that is part of the La Izquierda Diario international network (along with Left Voice), organized a national student strike in late April and mobilized more than 8,000 youth in 12 cities (Vargas 2016b). In September in Berlin alone, more than 4,000 students were mobilized by this committee to stop the deportations. It is necessary for the powerful German trade unions to support this action and, in doing so, allow the workers of Europe’s main power to reverse the right-wing turn which fosters hatred and racism as well as worse living conditions for workers, migrant and non-migrant, desperation and brutality.

Translated by Victor Conti

Basso, Pietro. March 2015. ‘El desafío de la inmigración’. Ideas de Izquierda.

Huber, Oskar. September 2015. ‘La ‘cooperación social’ alemana: modelo exitoso para el capital’. Ideas de Izquierda 23.

Maso, Juan Dal. January 2016. Interview with Pietro Basso, ‘Si triunfa la islamofobia, los costos los pagarán todos los inmigrantes y trabajadores europeos’. Ideas de Izquierda.

Mercatante, Esteban. July, 2016. ‘Una carrera hacia el abismo’. Ideas de Izquierda 31.

Vargas, Sebastian. July 2016. ‘Attacke von München: Amoksyndrom oder tiefgründige soziale Krise? (Ataques en Múnich: síndrome Amok o una profunda crisis social)’, Klasse gegen Klasse y La Izquierda Diario.

Vargas, Sebastian. May 2016. ‘Así enfrenta al racismo la juventud en Alemania’, La Izquierda Diario http://www.laizquierdadiario.com/Asi-enfrenta-al-racismo-la-juventud-en-Alemania
‘The Refugee Struggle for Freedom (Auf Gewerkschaftsdemo gegen Integrationsgesetz)’. October 2016. Klasse gegen Klasse.

‘Support the Struggle of Refugees in Karlsfeld Camp’. April 2016. Jugend gegen Rasissmus, Munich. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di4NXlahSSg.

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