Germany's Refugee Challenge 'It's Mostly the Politicians Who Have Been Overwhelmed'

Doubt has lately begun creeping into the German refugee debate, but integration specialist Naika Foroutan says that the new Germany has sent its message loudly and clearly: "We can absorb the refugees!"
A Red Cross volunteer plays with a Syrian refugee at a shelter in the state of Baden-Württemberg: "Germany has become diverse."

A Red Cross volunteer plays with a Syrian refugee at a shelter in the state of Baden-Württemberg: "Germany has become diverse."

Foto: Wolfram Kastl/ dpa

SPIEGEL: Ms. Foroutan, Germany is expecting around a million refugees to arrive in the country this year. Can we handle the influx, as Chancellor Angela Merkel says we can?

Foroutan: The question has long since become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Politicians and the media have been warning of a mood shift for so long that the mood has started to shift.

SPIEGEL: Still, the immensity of the challenge at hand can be seen every day in places like Passau, on the Bavarian border with Austria, or in Berlin.

Foroutan: It is mostly the politicians who have been overwhelmed. And the administration, because they are poorly equipped. But German citizens have sent a very clear message in the past weeks and months: We can absorb the refugees! We are supportive. Refugee aid organizations have reported an up to 70 percent increase in volunteers -- and not just since the images from the train station in Munich.

SPIEGEL: Can one draw conclusions about a society's willingness to accept refugees from the actions of individual citizens?

Foroutan: At the beginning of September, 62 percent of Germans surveyed said Germany could absorb this many refugees. Recently, it was a bit less than that. Uncertainty in the country has grown since the government reintroduced border controls. This stance makes people fearful. They see a political elite that is behaving in an extremely contradictory manner. From our research, we know that roughly a third of the German population has a positive view of immigration and one third rejects immigration. Among the 30 to 40 percent that is unsure, we have identified for the moment a trend toward more openness and support.

About Naika Foroutan
Foto: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/ picture alliance / dpa

Naika Foroutan, 43, is one of the best-known integration researchers in Germany. She is a member of the board of the Council for Migration and deputy director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research at Berlin's Humboldt University. She herself was also a refugee, having come to Germany from Iran in the 1980s.

SPIEGEL: Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, of Germany's Ruhr Valley region, recently sermonized that it isn't just the lives of the refugees that are changing dramatically, but ours as well. Germans, he said, need to take a step back from the prosperity they have become used to. Is he right?

Foroutan: On this one point, yes: We are not just helpers, but also perpetrators. After all, the West, by way of its economic policies and wars, has contributed to the destabilization of some regions. A significant portion of the population is aware of that connection. Perhaps that also explains the pronounced willingness to help.

SPIEGEL: In Europe, Germany is largely alone with its openness to refugees. Why is that?

Foroutan: That certainly has to do, in part, with the economic situation. Germany is doing well. Business is humming along, unemployment is low. That makes it easier to show generosity to newcomers. Furthermore, we are well aware of the prognoses made by demographers and economic researchers. We are aware that, without immigration, our pension system may no longer be tenable by 2030.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that Germans have the feeling that they have to make up for having played the bad-cop role in the Greece crisis?

Foroutan: Could be. And there is another important factor to consider as well: A certain torpor has become apparent in Germany. Many have seen the Merkel years as a kind of stagnation. The refugee question provides an opportunity to break out of this routine. My colleagues Serhat Karakayali and Olaf Kleist conducted a study looking at the motivations of those who are helping refugees. The respondents said they weren't just doing so to improve the humanitarian situation of the refugees, but also to "shape society." Some leading politicians are actively hindering this very clear willingness to become involved and mold society. But people in this country have shouldered other burdens as well: Reconstruction, reunification, economic crises. In 1992, 1.5 million people came to Germany and almost 800,000 of them stayed. In the financial crisis, we were told that there was no alternative to government policy. We need that attitude now too.

SPIEGEL: Are you trying to say there is actually no refugee crisis?

Foroutan: Of course there is one. When 60 million people around the world are forced to flee their homes, then something is wrong. And there is also a lack of crisis management. In 2013, the European Commission warned of the approaching humanitarian catastrophe. When the German interior minister now says that nobody could have predicted the present situation, that is inaccurate. At least civil society is partially making up for the state's failure.

SPIEGEL: But Angela Merkel is preaching confidence at every opportunity.

Foroutan: And at the same time, her government is preparing the most restrictive tightening of asylum rights seen in years. The coalition is ignoring the moral and ethical sentiments of German citizens. Its policies are aimed at the 30 percent of Germans who reject immigration.

SPIEGEL: What does it mean for a society when more than 100,000 refugees arrive every month?

Foroutan: In Canada, there is a regulated immigration quota of around 1 percent per year. In Germany, that would translate to 800,000 people annually. It could level off at that number after the first peak. For the EU, it would translate to an annual immigration quota of 5 million people. We should stay realistic when we look at such numbers. One percent new citizens every year does not lead to the death of a nation, no matter what some might say. The Germans aren't going to die out and they will continue to read (Romanticist writer) Achim von Arnim. If they don't, it won't be the migrants' fault. But I do believe that we in Germany will speak a different language in 10 years' time.

SPIEGEL: Which one?

Foroutan: German, of course, but it will have additional tonalities and it will be spoken more flexibly. You have seen that in Great Britain, where nurses, public officials and managers speak a type of English that was learned in places like Pakistan or Nigeria. In the same way, we will have to get used to a different kind of German, with new words and new expressions.

SPIEGEL: Will competition for jobs increase?

Foroutan: That is probable, particularly in the low-wage sector. Members of the lower-middle class, though, could also benefit from immigration because they will be seen as being more qualified relative to the newcomers. The signals from the business world have been positive thus far. Large companies, after all, are perfectly aware of the demographic problems that are approaching.

Volunteers help sort clothing donations for refugees at Hamburg's trade fair center: "I do believe that we in Germany will speak a different language in 10 years' time."

Volunteers help sort clothing donations for refugees at Hamburg's trade fair center: "I do believe that we in Germany will speak a different language in 10 years' time."

Foto: Christian Charisius/ dpa

SPIEGEL: Should we then do everything we can to ensure that the Syrians stay in Germany?

Foroutan: The refugees are a gift to business. Young, motivated people are coming to our country.

SPIEGEL: What will it mean in the future to be German?

Foroutan: Who would have said 10 years ago that Munich is typically German? But it apparently is. The people who are helping at the train station (by welcoming and volunteering to help arriving refugees) reflect the approach to life taken by a majority of Germans. That is the new Germany. Germany has changed, and it is now changing dramatically once again.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Foroutan: The new Germany must be imagined from a post-migration perspective. What happens once the migrants have gotten situated? Will we have a society divided between the migrants and those who have always been here? In such a case, we would have the old Germany, where differences were determined by origin. Or will we be able to describe the new Germany based on behaviors? Let's call it the Munich approach: Here, we see people with and without migration backgrounds at the train station, conservative Catholics and leftist anarchists, and between them are pious and less pious Muslims together with single mothers. The attitude visible from the outside is the same as that exhibited by the provost of the Cologne cathedral who turned off the cathedral's lights so as not to provide a backdrop for the protest by the (anti-Muslim) Pegida (movement) there. Germany has become diverse.

SPIEGEL: But aren't the anti-refugee protests in places like Heidenau part of Germany as well?

Foroutan: Yes they are. Chanting, invective, rejection: That is there too, everywhere in the world. It's not something that is typically German. Just look at Hungary, France or Austria. Rising inequality has left behind losers of our society and they are increasingly becoming opposed to integration.

SPIEGEL: First, though, short-term problems have to be solved. We need shelters for the refugees, food and medical care. Can Germany do all that?

Foroutan: That is an intermediary step seen in all migration movements. The challenges are the same for all countries: tents are built and basic provisions are provided. More important is what happens after that. That is when it will become clear whether the arrival of these people will be a burden or a success story. In Lebanon, Palestinians have been living for decades in what are essentially extra-territorial camps.

SPIEGEL: How can such a situation be avoided?

Foroutan: We need to begin today thinking five years into the future. Economically strong cities, for example, must launch residential construction projects. Structurally weak regions should begin competing to attract refugees. Just like in Canada. There, each province registers its needs with the federal government and competes for immigrants.

SPIEGEL: So we should allow the creation of problem districts in our cities similar to those that developed when workers from Turkey arrived? Were that the case, refugees would learn poor German, find no work and end up going to radicalized mosques. Is that what we have to look forward to?

Foroutan: I'm not that pessimistic. Policymakers are trying to learn from past mistakes and are responding flexibly to the situation: Doctors among the refugees, for example, are helping out as medical professionals in the reception facilities even without having a license to practice in Germany. Asylum seekers are allowed to take a job just three months after arrival -- theoretically, at least. And newcomers are being sent to German and integration courses to the extent possible. Mosques are opening their doors. Early on, there was a brief debate in Muslim congregations as to whether they should only help Muslims, but they have long since moved beyond that. They are helping unconditionally, with the faithful cooking for the refugees or setting up beds for them. Just like the churches are doing.

SPIEGEL: At the same time, there are Salafists who are distributing Korans and their propaganda in front of refugee hostels.

Foroutan: Yes, and that is indeed a danger. The camp situation can rapidly make people angry. We know from analyzing radicalization processes that young men who have little self-respect and find themselves in a dead-end situation can be susceptible to the offerings of the Salafists. We have to take that seriously.

SPIEGEL: How should the state react when Muslim men refuse to follow instructions from a female doctor or police officer?

Foroutan: Those who defy female police officers are defying the state's authority. That cannot be tolerated. Those who don't want to be treated by a female doctor have only themselves to blame. That isn't just true of Syrians, but of all people in this society. It is concerning that the values debate is again focused on the Muslims. Just a few months ago, we were engaged in a critical values debate about the corpses piling up on Europe's external borders.

SPIEGEL: How can we free the country from its moodiness when it comes to such issues?

Foroutan: We need a guiding principle for the new Germany. In immigration countries like the United States, a commission in the 1970s developed such a principle following societal upheaval. In Germany, political parties, scientists, churches, unions, employers and minority representatives should join together in the search for a narrative that can carry our society forward. Those aren't just empty words. Until as recently as 2001, we were told that we aren't a country of immigrants. When the realization that Germany actually is an immigration country finally prevailed, politics also changed. We got a new citizenship law allowing dual nationality, we got an immigration law and we got a law allowing for the recognition of foreign professional qualifications. It's not an empirical question, it is a question of narrative, of how we define ourselves. Now we have to ask ourselves once again: What is special about this country? How do we want to live together here? And where do we want to go?

SPIEGEL: What is your answer?

Foroutan: In the US, it is said that it is a country of immigrants. In France, they have freedom, equality and fraternity. Maybe in Germany it is plurality, solidarity and tolerance? The new German "we" was defined by President Joachim Gauck as the unity of differences -- Unity in Diversity is what it's called in Canada. German philosopher Theodor Adorno once expressed the desire for the freedom to be different without fear. There are traditions of thought that could be leaned on and new impulses that must be considered. The goal could be that of politically overcoming the established origin-based divisions.

SPIEGEL: You came to Germany from Iran when you were 12. What are your memories of your own flight?

Foroutan: We had to sell everything we had to pay the migrant smugglers to take my father. First, he fled by himself to Germany by way of Pakistan and Turkey. Only after he arrived did we children fly to join him with my mother, who is German. This feeling of losing everything and starting over in a new place is one I know very well. As well as the feeling of living for years in a transitory state, because you can't let go of the past and because the arrival is so difficult. My father couldn't bear it. Not long ago, he went back.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Foroutan, we thank you for this interview.

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