Almost exactly one year after the rise of the right-wing and nationalist movement PEGIDA in Germany, one would assume that the situation would’ve calmed down. The international media almost completely stopped reporting about the weekly protests, not just in Eastern Germany but all over the country and creates an image of a welcoming and open-minded nation that says “Refugees welcome!”, taking in as many refugees as possible, giving them a safe place to live in and a chance to start a new life far away from war, violence and life-threatening situations.
Well, if you take a closer look, you will notice that reality looks slightly different. What the international media showcase is a distorted image, pure imagination, full of idealistic wishful thinking, but far away from reality and what’s actually occurring in the country.
The new reality of Germany is that while a minor part of the population welcomes the refugees with open arms and tries to support them in any way possible, as the recent pictures of the arrivals of refugees on German train stations showed, the xenophobic attacks on refugee shelters and refugees have to be counted in steps of hundred. While in 2013 the number of attacks was around 55, from January 2015 to now it rose up to 500, of which alone 26 arson attacks happened in September. There is no end in sight.
Furthermore, it seems like the German justice system appears to turn a blind eye once again. A suitable example: Just recently, two young men set an inhabited refugee shelter in the Westphalian city Altena (which is situated in Western Germany) on fire, justifying their action by their alleged “fear of refugees”. As a consequence the concerned prosecutor stated the crime as “personal” and “not politically motivated” and released them from custody.
Refugees as well as human rights and pro-asylum-activists, may it be normal citizens or even politicians, are being threatened, verbally and physically assaulted and in some cases even badly injured. The local branches of political parties such as the leftist party Die Linke are being destroyed. Mayors supporting refugees and the accommodation of asylum seekers in their towns or villages are being forced to step down, because they are receiving death threats. Policemen are being attacked with bottles and stones by right-wing extremists.
At this point it is apposite to ask if all of this is still connected to the PEGIDA movement or if this is a whole new chapter of politically motivated violence against refugees and everything connected to them. This question is admittedly not easily answered.
What you need to know is: PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Western World) is a movement that originally emerged as an association of citizens who wanted to protest against what they considered the “Islamisation” of Germany and the German asylum and immigration policies in general. Since the first demonstration of PEGIDA on October 20, 2014 a lot has happened. Starting with a number of 350 participants, the movement grew fast and soon counted over 10 000 supporters. At the climax, on January 12, 2015, the weekly demonstration counted over 25 000 supporters participating in the so called “evening walk”. After this day the movement began to change slowly. Six of the executive board members stepped down from their office, rallies were cancelled and the movement lost a big number of supporters, going back to 5000-7000 participants. From May on, the movement seemed to fade away, as they only had a number of 2000-3000 participants each week over a lapse of time of about 4-5 months. But since September 2015, the movement starts growing again, reaching a number of 8000-9000 participants. It seems like PEGIDA started to reveal its true face marked by racism, xenophobia and an alarming willingness to use violence. While in the early hours of the movement they were still denying the connection between PEGIDA and right-wing mindsets and preferred to let themselves be called “worried citizens”, it seems like they went through a worrying process of radicalization over the last months, as verbal and in some few cases even physical attacks on journalists and refugees, disturbingly racist and xenophobic slogans as well as inhuman and humiliating methods are not uncommon anymore. Not to add that PEGIDA is by far not the only right-wing and anti-asylum movement anymore, as numerous local movements started to emerge in the recent past.
Now we reached a point where everybody should wonder: Where does this “fear of refugees” and the fundamental hatred on asylum seekers come from? How is it possible that this fear or hate becomes so strong that it leads to people attacking innocent men, women and children who are simply seeking refuge from the war in their home countries or the poverty they are suffering of?
A possible reason for the huge wave of xenophobia and anti-asylum-protests which is currently rolling over Germany is the fear of the unknown, if not mere ignorance and a lack of education. People are afraid that the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Germany will impact their own daily life and that they will have to change and adjust their accustomed habits because of the asylum seekers. In most of the times, the people protesting against the emergence of refugee shelters and taking part in PEGIDA and other right-wing movements are situated in unstable situations themselves caused by unemployment or low income. Considering the huge influx of refugees, they are now developing a deep concern and even fear that the German government will rather support the refugees instead of helping its “own” citizens. At the same time this state of concern of many people offers a fertile ground for the propaganda of right-wing movements such as PEGIDA. Through spreading, especially on platforms such as Facebook, numerous prejudices, inaccurate information and misrepresented facts, they are contributing to the intensification of the anti-asylum mood all over the country.
And yet a single look on these prejudices is enough to realize that all of them are based on simply unfounded stereotypes and that can be disproven easily. For the clarification, let’s have a look on three of the most common prejudices:
“While we as German citizens have to work for our money, the refugees have a nice life and get their money from the government.”
This is just wrong. Refugees receive less financial support than Hartz-IV recipients. Hartz-IV is a social contribution by the German government for unemployed people and it covers the physical and socio-cultural minimum subsistence level. That means refugees are living under the minimum subsistence level. They have the right to accommodation in a reception camp for refugees. Food, clothing and convenience goods as for instance toilet paper count to the non-cash benefits they are receiving by the government. Furthermore they receive a limited ‘pocket money’ – single persons 143€/month, couples 126€/month and children 82-90€/month (depending on age).
Until the end of the asylum process, the refugees are being accommodated in refugee shelters. From then on they have to pay for food and convenience good by themselves, that’s why they receive an additional payment of 216€ per month for single persons, and couples and children between 133-194€. A nice life looks different.
“Economic refugees are not in need of protection, they are just coming to Germany to exploit our welfare state and to live at the expense of the German government!”
This is not quite true. Many people argue that refugees from the Balkans or Eastern Europe do not have a reason to flee their home countries. And yet they indeed have a right to protection and a reason to aim for a better life. Especially the Romani people – an ethnic minority – are being systematically discriminated in their home countries. Because they do not receive inhabitations they often live in slums, have a very limited access to healthcare and they are often denied the access to education. Besides, why should poverty or physical need be a less significant reason to flee your home country than civil war or political persecution?
“The refugees can’t be so badly off when they can afford smartphones and nice clothing!”
Let me make one thing clear: Most of the refugees coming to Germany flee from countries such as Syria or Afghanistan. No, they are not poor; they are fleeing war not poverty. Back then when there was no civil war in their home countries, most of them lead a normal – middle class – life just much like each and every German citizen. They had well-paid jobs and some ran their own companies. They had their own houses with beautiful gardens and lived a great life, before the war deprived them of their possessions and their integrity.
Furthermore most people seem to forget that the smartphone in this case does not function as a luxury good, but it meets the basic needs of the refugees. Before they come to Germany, their smart phone is in most cases the only way to organize their escape through the access to GPS and stay in contact with potential smugglers. Having arrived in Germany, the smartphones are in most cases the only connection of the refugees to the parts of their families and their relatives they had to leave behind in their home countries. The smartphone is sometimes the only thing that remains out of their previous life.
Now there is another interesting and hilariously ironic fact to add: Most of the people having the strongest concerns and fears – sometimes up to fundamental hate – have never encountered an immigrant or refugee. They have never talked to any of the people they are pretending to hate. And that’s the crucial point: If they would manage to overcome their uneasiness and have the courage to get to know and talk to refugees, they would come to the final conclusion that they’re just humans – people like you and me, some more likeable, some less. I’m convinced that the key to the solution for the current situation in Germany is to raise this huge and anonymous wave of refugees on a personal level, to make out of sheer numbers people like you and me. Each and every refugee is an individual and has a unique story to share, and these stories deserve to be heard. Instead of shutting our doors and spreading hatred and reluctance, we should be open-minded and embrace each other just as we are. And the most important thing we should always keep in mind is: Escape is no choice. These people don’t leave their home countries because they want to or because they have nothing else to do, but because their homes are being destroyed and their lives threatened. As they say “People never put their children on a boat, unless it’s safer than land”. They went through the worst a human being can go through and have seen things we, living our safe and comfortable live in Germany or other Western countries, couldn’t even nearly imagine. I think keeping this in mind, saying “Refugees welcome!” is the least we, as representatives of an open-minded and modern society, can do. Showing kindness doesn’t hurt.
You too can be human, you too can say “Refugees welcome!”
Note: This is the first of three articles addressing the current refugee crisis in Germany. Two other articles are to be published, one about how the politics and the German government is reacting to the current situation and another one on how it is to be a Refugee in Germany, featuring some unique perspectives and insights in the life of a refugee. Stay tuned if you want to know more!