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Tuesday, September 01, 2015 

Germany: putting the rest of Europe to shame.

There is something quite extraordinary taking place in Germany.  With predictions that the country will see 800,000 asylum applications this year, a figure that some are already suggesting is likely to be an underestimate, it's all too predictable that 199 attacks of varying severity on refugee hostels had been recorded by early July.  Polls suggest 40% of Germans are opposed to taking in any more, while the rise of both the Pegida movement and the Alternative for Deutschland party have both further raised concerns.

Yet that only tells half the story.  Established a year ago, the Welcoming Alliance for Refugees, based in Berlin, now has over 1,000 supporters and regularly sees more than 300 volunteers turn out to give donations and help newly arrived asylum seekers with their claims.  Banners making clear that refugees are welcome have been waved not just at demonstrations, but at football grounds across the country.  The German media, regardless of political affiliation, has almost as a whole expressed the same message.  The populist tabloid Bild, which most closely resembles the Sun, declared at the weekend it too supported the "we're helping" movement, having in the past been accused of helping to ramp up xenophobia.  Politicians too have almost universally said that the country can accommodate the numbers coming, even if there has been criticism they have at times been slow in acknowledging as much.  Last week the government also suspended the Dublin convention, if only for Syrian refugees, making clear they would not be deported regardless of if they had already made an application in another EU state.

Indeed, in the main this has been the reaction of the locals at the sharp end of the biggest mass movement of refugees since WW2 regardless of country.  Residents of places like Lampedusa and any number of Greek islands have shown remarkable patience and made great sacrifices to help those whom have landed on their shores, a kindness that has not always been extended by the authorities themselves.  While few will begrudge the Greek government protesting about it being unable to cope, the refusal of other EU member states to agree to a quota system for refugees is one of the first signs of the possibility of the Schengen agreement breaking down.  The Schengen agreement underpins the freedom of movement rules that have become the bete noire of those opposed to "uncontrolled" immigration with the EU, with Theresa May declaring at the weekend that freedom of movement ought to mean freedom to move to a country where a job is waiting, not simply to look for work.

Der Spiegel's depiction of both a "dark Germany" and a "bright Germany" is probably to overdramatise events in the country that will on current trends take in more refugees this year than the rest of Europe combined.  Germany's stance is all the more remarkable when you realise it is motivated less by anything approaching guilt over the role played in the various wars that have led to the refugee crisis and more by memories of the suffering following the second world war, when millions were left to make their way back to places that were either in ruins or soon to be under a new tyranny.  Germany, unlike ourselves or France, refused to get involved in the NATO intervention in Libya, while it has also played a less partisan role in Syria.  The irony that it is now the major destination for refugees making their way through the failed state of Libya and has opened its borders to Syrians as a whole has not been lost on the German media: Bild for one has raged against David Cameron for shirking his responsibilities.

The attitudes of the German and British media could hardly be further removed from each other.  At the same time as the German papers have welcomed the 200,000 that claimed asylum in the country in July alone, our finest have been thundering against the 1,500 that equally desperately have been trying to make their way to this country from Calais.  Every solution other than letting those who clearly won't be put off by bigger fences and more security make their claims in France has been considered, including sending in the army.  Some might argue that our papers are more reflective of public opinion than their German equivalent, and to judge by radio and TV debates that's probably the case. 

That this merely demonstrates the nadir the debate on immigration has descended to is hardly something to say in our media's defence.   The number of asylum seekers taken in last year made up only around a tenth of the overall net figure of 330,000, a number which is itself deceptive due to how it includes students coming to study from abroad.  We've reached the point where a Songs of Praise broadcast from a makeshift church in the Calais "jungle" has become a front page outrage.  That once these same papers did on occasion welcome asylum seekers, so long as they were from the eastern bloc, with even those who would now be denounced as people smugglers regarded as heroes just underlines the way in which the default tabloid position has become one of permanent suspicion if not outright opposition.

You could say the reality of mass immigration since 2005 has led to public opposition to migration in general, whether economic or for sanctuary, and there's a smidgen of truth in that.  Easily forgotten is back in 2001-2003 the same scenes of chaos at Calais were a nightly feature on the news, with much the same reaction from the media, including alleged collusion between the Sun and the government over what the paper had deemed to be the biggest issue facing the country.  The main problem for many seems to be those in Calais trying to get to Britain aren't completely helpless: that they are breaking into trucks, sneaking onto trains, cutting fences, scaring holidaymakers means they can't possibly be victims, not least when their actions are or were having such a knock-on effect in Dover and Kent in general.  Combined with the questions over why they aren't claiming asylum in France or elsewhere in Europe, despite France taking more than double the number we have, such an atmosphere is hardly conducive to our politicians attempting to raise the tenor of the debate, let alone draw back from such self-defeating policies as the ever more ridiculous Conservative target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands.

Credit must then be given to Yvette Cooper, for at least making the case for us to do more.  To be frank, even accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees would be a fairly minor gesture, such are the numbers not just in Germany but throughout Europe and also Syria's neighbours.  It would at least be a start, and as Cooper said, would go some way towards this country once again playing the role it has in the past.  Without going further however, and providing a way for refugees to claim asylum from outside Europe, it is both ludicrous and downright stupid to talk about those involved in getting Syrians and others into Europe as the equivalent of slave traders.  What option is there apart from paying smugglers when the other choices are staying or attempting the journey through Turkey and then the Balkans on their own?  Stripped of those boats and vehicles there would be even less hope, terrible as the sinkings in the Mediterranean and suffocation of so many last weekend are. 

That regardless Cooper is up to now the closest we've come to a politician recognising we have a responsibility, not just to Europe but to ourselves to do more is an indictment of just what a nasty, selfish and brutish country we are in danger of becoming.  The very least a nation can do when it has had such a role in breaking the likes of Libya, Iraq and Syria is to give shelter to those who were in the way.  The selflessness of Germany increasingly stands apart from a rest of Europe that seems all too willing to turn its back on its shared past.

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