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“The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the German Election” by Jeff Hertel

December 4, 2013

The city of Berlin, the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, is home to about 3.4 million people. As of a 2010 census, around 460 thousand of those inhabitants are of foreign nationality. From that number, there are about 100,000 Turks, 14,000 Americans, 15,000 from the Russian Federation, and between two and three thousand Syrians. In October, twenty-five of those Syrians were in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the place where John F. Kennedy declared to the world “Ich bin ein Berliner,” where Ronald Reagan asked Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and where in June of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that much of Germany’s history has come “down to this simple question: Will we live free or in chains?” Those twenty-five Syrians were there to demand better conditions in their refuge from the chaos and bloodshed caused by the civil war in their home country. They sat like this:

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Their conditions were poor, and with the winter fast approaching, this spelled bad news. While not exactly in chains, the refugees weren’t exactly living “free.” Ten refugees, originally in asylum in Bulgaria, were returned to Sofia after not being able to find work or shelter in Berlin. Back in Bulgaria, they face hostility from a fringe of the local population, where skinheads have been demonstrating to convince their government to “clear the city from the criminal contingent of illegal immigrants in one week, or else we will do it ourselves.” Since the beginning of the month, there have been three violent attacks against refugees in the Bulgarian capital. Such stories are not isolated to Bulgaria; similar acts of protest against the refugees also took place in Germany.

Whether it was an election poster like this…

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Photo by the author; caption reads: “[Have a] good flight home!”

or this…

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Photo by the author; caption reads: “Live securely! Stop the Asylum flood!”

…or neo-nazis building a human chain around a shelter built by the German government in order to protest the asylum, the just-passed election season was a time in which the topic of the civil war in Syria- and international dimensions took the stage in some heated public debates. This sort of racist nationalism is just one sad side of the coin, and given that the refugees were granted access at all- Chancellor Merkel’s government has said it will take in an additional 5,000 asylum-seekers- these sorts of petty protests against a humanitarian cause seem, if anything, to define a “fringe” within the German political landscape. The neo-nazis were challenged by anti-fascists, leading to a police intervention to prevent violence.

The other side is, of course, the big debate which was also stirring in international politics earlier this fall: to intervene (militarily) or not to intervene? This theme had some more open commentary from mainstream politics within Germany. The candidates of the country’s two biggest parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) both called for restraint, with the CDU hoping for a “political solution.” Supporters of the Left Party, which came in third in the recent parliamentary elections, staged a protest at the Brandenburg Gate back in August:

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“Bombs don’t make peace!” read the posters, and walking around Berlin this past fall, the casual passerby could have been met with an election poster from “die Linke” like this:

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“Forbid weapons exports! End the occupation of foreign countries!”

Thus, the recent election season saw a flurry of political activity, from statements, demonstrations, and invitations to asylum within Germany. Except for the radical nationalist fringe, most of Germany’s political parties were against military intervention, for asylum, and essentially for a humanitarian solution to the problem in Syria. Who knows what the future will hold, but recent events have shown a trend within Germany’s political mainstream committed to promoting peace and peaceful solution to the world’s problems.

For a good summary of Germany’s changing role in world politics, as expressed by its reluctance to intervene in conflicts such as Libya and Syria, see Alan Cowell’s article in the New York Times from September.

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