Refugees in Germany: a firsthand perspective

 

The Politicon presents to your attention an interview, with Moritz Poesch (Germany), an MSc graduate from the Comparative Politics programme at the London School of Economics. Mr. Poesch has recently spent several months as an intern at one of the refugee camps in Germany and it is this experience that we wanted to ask him about.

 

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

 

Muradov: Mr. Poesch, could you first give some information about the camp where you worked?

 

Poesch: This camp is situated in a small town of Friedland, in the province of Lower Saxony, and is one of the oldest and largest camps in Germany. The camp was established in the immediate aftermath of the WWII by the Allied forces and has since then hosted more than 4 million former prisoners of war, German repatriates from the former USSR, and refugees from various crises of last decades. The camp is designed to host 700 people, but with last year’s influx it had to accommodate above 2000.

 

 

What can you say about the ethnoreligious background of the refugees at Friedland? Is it true that a significant part of them are not actually from Syria?

 

People whom I met while working at the camp indeed came from different countries. Apart from Syria, there were many Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans. It must also be noted that ethnic composition of some countries is extremely varied, for example people from Syria can be Sunni Arab, Shia, Moslem Kurdish or Yezidi Kurdish. Today, most are Muslim, which the camp is learning to adjust to, yet a very high percentage has a minority ethno-religious background. So, a certain amount of tension between the representatives of different groups is inevitable.

 

 

Are there inter-ethnic tensions within the camp?

 

The camp administration does its best to minimize violent accidents. The refugees are often settled according to the group they belong to, and policing is quite intensive and efficient in containing potential conflicts. However, sometimes they happen. Many people coming there have traumatic experiences, and a heightened sense of insecurity, especially teenagers. We had boy from Yezidi Kurds, a minority oppressed in the Middle East, who got alienated and victimized due to his nervousness and hostile attitude towards almost everyone. Building a space of acceptance in crucial in this instance. It would be false to consider that all clashes in the camp are identity-based. Very often they happen over some social issues, especially during games sessions, just like in any place where different groups of men coexist; many of the refugees may occasionally abuse smoking or drinking and then misbehave. However, effective policing pre-empts larger conflicts. People do get the sense to be watched. They just arrived, but cannot be sure about the future while waiting for the processing of their asylum requests.

 

 

Do you think that war migrants are indeed the majority in the camp?

 

This question is quite difficult to answer because the reasons are often intertwined. Many people who come from war-torn places like Syria did face serious threats to their lives. They often lose their property as well and face the prospect of miserable life even if the peace is somehow restored. Even where this is not the case, issues like feuds, lack of state security, or family conflicts may serve as additional push factors in a context of war, in which these personal factors are often intertwined with the issues of a post-conflict or war society. This is certainly difficult for German administration to assess, yet the proof people bring for their stories can to an extent be checked. An example are, many Afghans who worked for the Western companies or administration face the prospects of brutal punishment by the Taliban should the latter overtake the country.

 

 

What kind of reaction has this far prevailed among the local population? Is there resentment as strong as often claimed by the media?

 

When it became clear that the state did not seem to have the influx under control, refugees were treated very emphatically by most of the Germans, trying to help them was the dominant attitude. At the same time however, this sudden influx escalated a public discussion about integration, which had long been due. Many had felt that the hegemonic pluralist discourse did not allow them to voice resentment, to point at the downsides of immigration from very different cultural and religious backgrounds, and at necessary measures to make rules clear. In that sense, the refuge crisis has been very productive. Yet even now I wouldn’t say that xenophobic political ideas have become very popular. However, is must be noted that Friedland is a very small town. With not even 1500 inhabitants, a population change in the camp from 700 to above 2000 was noticeable and could not but create social tension over many daily issues. Many of the migrants are unaccustomed with the European modes of behaviour, there were many cases of them stealing some fruit from the locals’ orchards, and all these things could not be accepted as normal, of course. The events in Cologne on the New Year night did not serve to improve the relationship either. Different from other small German towns, in Friedland parents do pick up their daughters from the train station at night. Yet, the camp is also an economic driver in an otherwise remote village and the town is used to being a town with a camp. Many of its elder inhabitants actually have passed through the camp themselves, before settling close to it.

 

Do you believe that the consequences of the refugee crisis may further influence the German politics and hurt the establishment?

 

Well, at the height of the popular discontent with the issue, probably a couple of months, Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely perceived as responsible for the refugee problem and seemed to have somewhat lost her grip. But then she demonstrated her ingenious ability to take a position in between and accumulate wishes of the major social groups. On one side, the government responded with tightening security measures, from the process of admission and registration of migrants up to control procedures at the camps. The increasing number of applicants is now turned down. On the other side, Chancellor managed not to lose her face and insisted that the Syrians fleeing from war must be accepted and called for more pro-active and sophisticated policies aimed at integrating them into the German society. It was argued that the crisis should play a positive role by initiating a genuine and sincere discussion of the challenges of multiculturalism and demographic change in contemporary Germany. To sum up, Merkel benefited from her unique ability to win through being politically reactive, once more.

 

How do you estimate chances for smooth integration of refugees into German society?

 

Whether a refugee from a country culturally very different from Germany gets integrated or not depends very much on the work and career opportunities he/she gets, which depends on other factors. A scenario speaking against integration is that migrants that stay unemployed for a long time, live on welfare or some occasional petty jobs, who get stuck in ethnic ghettos and then develop negative perceptions of “the Alemans” and an identity that defines itself against German society. These ghettoes and people in turn provoke suspicion and resentment among the settled German population. This certainly has to be avoided. As the ethnic structure of the German society gets more and more diverse with each younger generation, current migrants will probably find it less challenging to find their place and adopt cultural norms. The challenge is to help arriving refugees with job placements as well as cognitive and affective barriers, allowing them to develop and implement strategies for building their lives in Germany.

 

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