Translated into English and adapted for style, the original article was first published in Tempo weekly magazine, Indonesian Edition, October 15–21, 2018 (paywall).
The massive influx of migrants entering Germany has sparked vigorous debates. Unsurprisingly, the populist camp is making the most of the anti-immigrant sentiments.
On a windy afternoon in September, for instance, people with a non-Caucasian appearance walking the streets of Berlin were singled out. "That’s a Turkish man. The other one was Arab. The one further away from him was Asian. Their number increases every day," pointed out a passer-by. Then a car passed. Vroom, it drove fast, seemingly exceeding the 40-km per hour speed limit. "The driver must be an immigrant. They always disregard the rules!" said the same passer-by.
Immigrant. Once the beginning of a fabled story of bravery and daring romance to seek fortune and a better life is now a word that ignites vitriol, including in Germany. Every day the German TV stations broadcast talk shows debating immigration tolerance. Many people think there should be a strict limit imposed on the number of immigrants that are allowed into the country. But from the thousands of applicants, who should be allowed and not allowed in?
"The immigrant issue is quite an emotional issue that tends to divide the community," noted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in his opening speech at the Bali Democracy Forum-Berlin Chapter in September, which responded to the theme of "Migration and Democracy".
The hundreds of thousands of refugees who have risked their life to seek asylum in another country have triggered sympathy. At the same time, they have also raised concerns over the economy, security and terrorism. As a result, many destination countries now ignore the human rights considerations and have tightened their border controls, consequently creating humanitarian crises in the many refugee camps that were hastily set up.
The massive influx of migrants that began three years ago did not initially attract the world’s attention. It was Aylan Kurdi, the young boy who lost his life on the Italian coast in 2015, that transformed the circumstances. Images of the boy lying lifeless on the shore of the land of his final destination triggered global notice. Since then, the media has insistently reported on the immigrant crisis in a number of countries. Based on the United Nations’ record, no fewer than 70 million people have fled their home country since 2015, mainly due to conflict and war. The influx of refugees to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe have come from Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.
Europe, with its neatly structured welfare system, is a magnet—Germany in particular. The country has become the number-one favourite destination for immigrants, followed by France, Italy and Sweden. Germany recorded 10.9 million foreigners living within its borders in 2018, which represents an increase of 2 million foreigners from two years ago.
Anti-immigrant demonstrations have spread in various cities across Germany. Some of the protesters proudly have carried neo-Nazi symbols.
At a glance, it is difficult to understand why the influx of immigrants seem to have caused such a stir in Germany. The country does need additional help to support its performance in various fields. The German soccer player, Mesut Oezil, for instance, is an immigrant from Turkey.
Data on the economy and security that tends to prompt concerns about immigrants has not shown anything to be worried about. Throughout 2017, more than 5.7 million crimes were reported (link), which was the lowest number in the past 30 years. The German economy is healthy and sound. Unemployment is at 5.2 per cent, which is the lowest since the unification of West and East Germany in 1990.
So, why do Germans continue to feel anxious when looking at immigrants? Anggar Lestari, an Indonesian citizen who has lived in Germany for the past 14 years, tried to explain the psychosocial condition behind the local population’s discontent. In the highly orderly country, housing, roads and school buildings are well ordered, she began. All public spaces and buildings were intricately planned years prior. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of newcomers arrived and occupied what used to be abandoned school buildings and stadiums, and other rundown buildings. It created a dilemmatic situation.
Such is one of the reasons why many Germans don't think the country is ready to receive immigrants. "How about when winter comes? They can get frozen in the buildings that have no heaters," Anggar said.
The other matter that also raises debate is the welfare benefit. The German Constitution guarantees education, health and retirement benefits to its people. Persons affected by termination of employment, for example, receive a minimum allowance of 40 per cent of their last salary. Every child receives a monthly allowance of 150 euro, or approximately 2.6 million Indonesian rupiahs.
The benefits amounts are generally considered not that much for Germans, but are quite significant for immigrants. “There are always immigrants who don’t want to work and live solely on the benefits. Yet, the benefits actually come from the taxpayers’ money that we pay to the government,” explained Anggar, a graduate from the University of Bonn, who allocates 40 per cent of her salary to pay taxes.
The most serious debate, according to Rolf Mützenich, member of the German Parliament and board member of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), is one concerning cultural ignorance. Some of the immigrants are Muslims whose appearance is quite striking, thus prompting feelings of insecurity and menace. Ignorance of different cultures in various nations has led to awkward feelings for many people. "Unfortunately, many of them respond with anxiety and hatred," Mützenich said during the celebration of the FES 50th anniversary in Jakarta in October. "The situation is made more complicated because right-wing politicians are exploiting the issue," he added in his speech.
Anti-immigrant demonstrations have spread in various cities across Germany. Some of the protesters proudly have carried neo-Nazi symbols. The popularity of the right-wing political party, Alternative for Germany (AFD), has soared. The party holds an ultranationalist view, spouting such slogans as "resist foreign invasion" and calls the influx of immigrants from the Middle East an attempt at Islamization. In 2014, the AFD barely passed the minimum electoral threshold. However, in last year's general election, the AFD managed to rank third after the Christian Democratic Union (Angela Merkel's party) and the German Social Democratic Party.
Conflict in a region, especially in the digital age, easily affects stability in other countries. Migration rules and regulations in one country cannot work alone.
In a speech at the BDF-Berlin Chapter, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talked of the complex situation of world migration. Unfortunately, the populist and conservative camps respond to the complexity by questioning the democratic system and demanding a more repressive system, she said. "Indeed, democracy is not a system that is immune to the challenges and changes of the times," she added.
The influx of immigrants, in massive numbers, certainly made the administration of them less efficient. "However, amid these challenges, we believe that democracy is the best system," said Minister Marsudi. "We hope that the Bali Democracy Forum can contribute in disentangling the complexity of migrant problems in the world."
International cooperation is a must. The wave of migration cannot be overcome by one country alone. "The idea of working alone feels very naive," said Minister Heiko Maas in his speech. Conflict in a region, especially in the digital age, easily affects stability in other countries. Migration rules and regulations in one country cannot work alone.
In mid-2018, 190 countries agreed to cooperate on dealing with migration issues through consultations on the Global Compact for Migration. A series of negotiations are still required to reach an agreement on the guidelines, regulations and a common framework for providing benefits to the countries of immigrant origin and destination. But human movement is unavoidable and unstoppable. As Heiko Mass remarked, "It is as old as our planet. Let us together make things better."
Mardiyah Chamim is journalist and executive director of Tempo Institute, participants at the Bali Democracy Forum Berlin Chapter, 14 September 2018 and the 11th Bali Democracy Forum, 607 December 2018. For more information on the work by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Bali Democracy Forum, contact the FES Indonesia county office.
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