Reflecting on Refugees A Plea for Measured Debate

The debate over refugees in Germany has grown divisive. Those in favor are unwilling to recognize the difficulties ahead while those opposed too often veer toward prejudice and xenophobia. Neither is helpful. What's needed is an atmosphere of critical empathy.
A boat full of refugees on the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. What would we do in their situation?

A boat full of refugees on the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. What would we do in their situation?


In periods of structural change, books and learned professors tell us, those affected tend to align themselves into three groups. The first group, rarely larger than 25 percent, doesn't shy away from uncertainty and welcomes change with expectant anticipation. The third group, often larger than the first, hates what is happening  out of fear for the new. And the second group, in the middle, waits to see how things will develop. They are uneasy, but not aggressive. They also aren't inflexible, but they are concerned. And it's true: That which happens in times of change is new and therefore risky, diffuse and difficult to interpret. The consequences are unclear.

In the refugee crisis, those in Germany who find themselves part of the first group are in the best of spirits -- some out of a desire to help their fellow humans and others for more calculated reasons, such as their conviction that immigration is vital for the future of the German economy. The third group feels threatened and is afraid of the outsiders pouring into the country. It is this part of the population out of which the German Tea Party is growing, a movement that furiously rejects all that is foreign, spreads rumors, bad-mouths the chancellor and is disdainful of education, the elite and the media. It is, as described by author Volker Zastrow in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, a "new völkisch movement."

The first and third groups are easy to document because they are vocal about where they stand. Between them, though, is the second group, the center -- and members of this group are quietly unnerved. Who can be trusted? Can we really do it? What is the correct, commensurate approach in times like these?

What Would We Do?

An "either-or" approach is not the way to go, the division between those who growl "We Are the People!" and those who paint "Welcome to Germany!" on their signs -- the split into cynicism and naiveté, head or heart. Linguistic warfare of the kind currently on display in the US is likewise destructive. The correct approach would be one of critical empathy or, vice versa, empathetic critique. That would be an approach consistent with Western democracy.

No migrant leaves his or her home casually, frivolously or even with any kind of pleasure at all. It is a far-reaching decision and all who pull up roots know it, even those who are still in their formative years. In 2005, the photographer Markus Matzel and I travelled together with refugees from Ghana to Spain via Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Morocco, a trip that became a SPIEGEL cover story  and a book. We spoke to hundreds of people on trucks, in camps and in the Sahara Desert, all of whom had heavy hearts at having bid farewell to loved ones and left home -- and all dreamed of finding a life worth living. Many were afraid of what was ahead of them because they knew that the journey, particularly the Mediterranean Sea, could be dangerous -- and only a few of them knew that they wouldn't be welcome in Europe. These hopes and fears are not something that should make us Europeans feel superior. Arrogance doesn't become us. The migrants who come to us merit empathy -- and what choice do those people have who come from war-torn Syria? What would we do in their situation?

For SPIEGEL, empathetic critique means months of stories in which we have profiled refugees , described the migrant trafficking mafia  and run cover stories such as "Dark Germany, Bright Germany."  What we have shunned this year are headlines such as "Dangerously Foreign," a questionable title used by SPIEGEL back in 1997. Media and people in the public spotlight should be cautious. That is always the case, but in times of extreme emotion it is particularly important to find precise formulations and to shy away from inflammatory language.

Creating Mistrust

When Chancellor Angela Merkel was chosen as Time magazine's Person of the Year, the well-known German lawyer Joachim Steinhöfel tweeted, "Isn't that nice? Our FDJ-lassie person of the year. 2016 then Robert Mugabe." (FDJ is a reference to the East German socialist youth group.) Such words, such blustering, adds fuel to the fire. And when an otherwise competent journalist like Michael Hanfeld refers to the journalistically responsible public television stations ARD and ZDF as the "Welcome Broadcasters," he too is playing with fire. Readers remember such disparagements, and they serve to create mistrust.

Nevertheless, we journalists can (indeed, we must) be forthright about what is happening and draw conclusions about possible developments. When Europe errs and the German government makes mistakes because it misjudges its partners in the crisis or reacts too late or too slow, we will tell our readers about it. Many outlets do exactly the same without becoming xenophobic or racist.

It is difficult to achieve objectivity in a crisis as complex as this one. There is proof for everything -- for almost every thesis as well as for its antithesis. There are fewer helpers than there were during the summer, but there are still quite a lot. Regions that have integrated many migrants in the past are prosperous today, but integration only works if the state doesn't lose control, and Germany at present has lost control. Of course there is a basic human right to asylum, but without an upper limit -- enforced, if necessary, with border controls -- it will be almost impossible to find a way out of the crisis.

For the media, that means: We have to describe all aspects of the story, with a carefully measured tone and as balanced as possible. Empathy and critique can exist alongside one another -- because head and heart belong together.