More than 3 years after moving back to the United States, some things still make me feel like I’ve landed on the wrong planet. One is the current discussion surrounding immigration, both legal and illegal. It’s nothing new, but it never ceases to amaze me how xenophobic this nation of immigrants can be.
The latest wrinkle concerns Syrian refugees. President Obama has committed to taking in 10,000 of them in the coming year – about one for every 32,000 Americans. Republicans are up in arms. Unperturbed by the lack of any supporting evidence, they have determined that Syrians fleeing the Islamic State are a threat to national security. Thirty of fifty governors say they will obstruct efforts to relocate any of them to their states.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Article 14 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Nearly 70 years later, it is a German woman, Angela Merkel, who has emerged as the defender of human rights law. Sometime in the next few days, the number of migrants reaching Germany since the beginning of 2015 will reach 1 million. That’s one migrant for every 82 German residents. Many of them are asylum seekers from Syria. Those granted political asylum will be able to bring their families to join them in Europe, so the total number being resettled could grow exponentially.
Hoping to get some perspective on things, I asked friends and former neighbors in Germany about their view of the situation and their experience so far with the refugee crisis. Since fear is the driving force behind so much of the political rhetoric in the United States, I asked my German friends about their fears:
Taking in and integrating so many refugees will be a challenge for German institutions and society. What are your greatest concerns?
The most frequent answer? Fear of a political shift to the right: both the growth of right-wing extremism and a more widespread shift in mainstream German society. Karin put it this way:
“I fear the far-right parties will gain popularity. It is important that our political leaders approach the issue calmly – explain why these people are fleeing and how they could contribute to our society.”
My friend Christine was especially adamant:
“We must never let it become socially acceptable to express rightwing prejudices against other nationalities as normal small talk.”
I’d love to let Christine loose on Donald Trump!
My friends are also concerned about integrating so many people from such very different cultures into German society. Refugees need to learn German and find work. Otherwise, Germany risks incubating a “disappointed generation”, like the one that has emerged in the banlieue of France. Many of the migrants will need to change the way they think about the role of women.
I’m proud to say that my friends, on the whole, are an optimistic bunch. And they, like many, many Germans, are acting on their convictions to make the resettlement of refugees a success. But public opinion in Germany is divided. More on that in my next blog post.