‘Can we manage?’ Anxieties and politicisation in German debates on immigration

On August 31, 2015, Angela Merkel uttered a phrase that many1 have come to see as defining her 15-year tenure in power: in response to growing numbers of refugees arriving primarily from war-torn Syria and Iraq, the German Chancellor stated that

“Germany is a strong country. The motive we’re approaching these things with has to be: We have managed so many things, we will manage this! We will manage this; and where something stands in our way, then that must be overcome, must be worked on.”

Very quickly, the phrase Wir schaffen das! (“We will manage this!”; or, in a snazzier translation, “We can do it!”) assumed an outsized presence in public debates surrounding immigration. As the social climate soured, it became a stick the Chancellor was beaten with by a resurgent far right. Already in September 2016, Merkel herself saw it wise to distance herself from her earlier ‘can do’ spirit, professing that she would not repeat the phrase.

Three rhetorical strategies

The fifth anniversary of Merkel’s dictum has led to a flurry of new commentary in Germany. Anxious questions predominate: Did we manage, in the end? Are we still managing? How much is actually manageable – and for whom?  

To be sure, much ink has already been spilt in attempts to answer these questions over the past half decade. Yet when taking a step back, it is striking how little public debate has moved on since the heady days of summer 2015.

Five years later, questions about the ‘manageability’ of immigration and its consequences still elicit the same three rhetorical strategies, lodged against each other in public discourse. One might refer to them as the ‘rhetorics of dehumanisation’, the ‘rhetorics of the good migrant’, and the ‘rhetorics of factfulness’.

Of fluxes, flows, and waves

The rhetorics of dehumanisation usually begins by stressing the supposedly enormous number of people involved, amalgamating a diverse group of individuals into the spectre of an anonymous sea of dark-skinned people washing over the dams of fortress Europe. This is the language of the ‘refugee wave’ or of the ‘mass inflow’ of people that threatens to submerge the ‘old Continent’.

An example of this approach is provided by German online magazine Qantara. The piece problematises “the Syrian influx” of 2015; a force of nature supposedly resulting from the fact that Angela Merkel – in her spirit of Wir schaffen das! and in disregard of EU law – released the metaphorical floodgates by opening the borders.2

Here, Qantara takes up a favourite trope of the German right: the idea that the federal government naively and needlessly opened the country’s borders, trampling on law and legality in the process. The fact that this supposed suspension of law is a myth misrepresenting both legal realities and political circumstances of 2015 has not made this narration any less appealing3

Germany’s far right continues to milk the dictum of Wir schaffen das!: “Merkel’s infantile slogan has become the leitmotiv of the reign of injustice that has not been corrected until today!” The phrase ‘reign of injustice’ originally comes from Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s hard-right inner-party critic.

A moment of collective national redemption

Rather than depicting it as a decision that sealed Germany’s civilisational downfall and transformed the country into an extra-legal dictatorship – as the country’s right-wing movements claim – Qantara gives this alleged act of legal brinksmanship the twist of magnanimity: Wir schaffen das! assumes the gloss of a white, Christian, German ‘We’ that is said to have assumed the “huge, self-imposed task” of integrating “so many people from different cultures”.4

To be sure, the spontaneous solidarity shown by many in Germany five years ago may often have been admirable. It is nevertheless false to speak of a task that was a self-imposed political choice. After all, as late as April 2015, the German federal government consistently rejected all appeals to admit more refugees from Syria and Iraq through official channels.5 In fact, therefore, it was the victims of war and destruction had to impose themselves by literally walking to Germany.

The Qantara piece then closes by noting that, five years on, Germany’s gesture of humanity has had the added benefit of paying off in material terms: immigrants are filling jobs that are hard and badly paid, and their relative youth injects much-needed lifeblood into the crumbling welfare systems of an ageing society. If in the rhetorics of dehumanisation refugees initially appear as a ‘wave’ threatening to sweep away Germany’s cherished social order, they are now represented as a resource usefully exploited for its perpetuation.

Of success stories, role models, and good migrants

A favoured rhetorical strategy to counteract such dehumanising tendencies has been the presentation and celebration of individual human stories. Here, highly personalised testimonials and biographical sketches are adduced to demonstrate that, five years on, integration is broadly speaking a success, and that we have indeed managed (a lot).

Another article from Qantara furnishes a good case study for this tendency. It recounts the story of a Syrian couple in Berlin, who overcame the many hardships they faced – in Syria, on the way to Europe, as well as in Germany. The couple are now running their own cultural activities and have founded their own restaurant.6

Their story is inspiring in many ways; and the courage and persistence of many Syrians in building new lives and homes is truly impressive. At the same time, the reliance on such exemplary narratives of determination and success has its own pernicious side-effects by elevating a role model of the ‘good migrant’ that is unattainable to most.

From-rags-to-riches mythologies

Think of the classic rags-to-riches narrative of the ‘American Dream’: it shrouds the fact that climbing the social ladder is the exception rather than the rule.7 Nevertheless, the power of this imaginary means that poverty is frequently presented as a personal flaw: because the poor refuse to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they are undeserving of further support – or so the argument goes.

What, then, about the many Syrians who for one reason or another cannot open their own business – because they lack the know-how, cannot access the requisite capital, are traumatised by war, have families to care for and worry about? And what about, say, the many Afghan refugees, who on average never received the same state support as Syrians did, and whose legal situation in the country continues to hang in the balance as authorities seek to maximise deportations?

Here, the rhetorics of the good immigrant may turn out to work to the disadvantage of their supposed beneficiaries. Not everyone can manage to be the picture-perfect embodiment of diffuse ideas about ‘integration’.

Of facts, figures, and statistics

A third and final strand of argument that has resurfaced surrounding the five-year anniversary of the ‘summer of migration’ attempts to steer clear of the dehumanising rhetorics of surging ‘waves’ and illegal ‘flows’ as well as from emotionalised accounts of the good immigrant. Instead, facts, figures, and statistics are supposed to reveal whether we have managed or not. Paradigmatically, a report by the Mediendienst Integration (MDI) asks: “How are the refugees today?” – and concludes that, all in all, they are quite well.8

This approach has the merit of enabling us to take stock of broader developments that have taken place since 2015. For instance, the MDI report shows that far fewer people are arriving in Germany today, due to the reinforcement of the EU’s external borders.

German authorities are also far less likely to grant asylum (or other forms of official protection) than five years ago. In 2019, Syrian applicants still received a positive decision in 99.9% of cases (100% in 2015), as did 90% of of Eritreans (99.6% in 2015). Conversely, acceptance rates for applicants from Afghanistan dropped steeply (from 77.6 to 35.8 per cent), as did those for Iraqis (from 99.1 to 51.8 per cent) and Iranians (from 85.1 to 28.2 per cent).

Statistics also highlight that more than 50 per cent of refugees who arrived after 2013 are now in employment. At the same time, the precarity of these jobs is driven home by the Covid-19 pandemic: unemployment among these groups has increased by 5.6 per cent in recent months, far more than the German average.

Contested statistics, biased representations

Insofar, however, as facts don’t just speak for themselves and statistics require contextualisation and interpretation, the rhetorics of factfulness run into difficulties. Indeed, statistics have become one of the most politicised weapons in the interpretational battle over whether we can manage or not. Perhaps purposefully, the MDI report did not include crime statistics, one of the most contentious features of the post-2015 public debate.

One aspect concerns the representation of crime in the media: although in official crime statistics German suspects outnumber non-German ones by a ratio of more than two to one, research has shown that in newspaper articles there are 14 (!) non-German suspects named and reported on for every German one.9 In spite of this obvious bias, media outlets from across the political spectrum resort to emphasising a suspect’s non-German nationality for fear of being accused of ‘political correctness’ if failing to do so.

And then the content of these crime statistics is in itself problematic. For instance, a recent investigation into the statistics issued by several of Germany’s 16 federal states suggests that racist police practices massively skew these figures to the disadvantage of suspects read as ‘Arab’ or ‘Turkish’.10

Politicisation, right and left

Thus, five years after Angela Merkel’s perhaps rather off-hand statement, the answers given to questions whether we have managed or not are all inherently political. Perhaps it is this politicisation that is the single most visible medium-term consequence of the events of 2015 (and of their ex post facto mythologisation). At least in some issue areas, the consensual centrism often attributed to German politics has frayed.

On the one hand, while the Pegida movement has faded, far-right violence has risen steeply. The growth of a powerful and organised far right political bloc has been alimented by flourishing grassroots movements – recently further invigorated by protests against the federal government’s pandemic measures. An equally crucial rule has been played by the arrival of the Alternative für Deutschland party in all of the country’s federal and regional parliaments.

On the other hand, civil society initiatives formed during the short-lived ‘welcome culture’ of 2015 have stuck around. For them, the Black Lives matter movement and the attempts to build alliances in the face of far-right attacks have been galvanising moments.

Who is ‘we’?

What at least some of these initiatives share with their antagonists on the right, however, is the scepticism towards Angela Merkel’s Wir schaffen das!. To them, the Chancellor’s dictum is dishonest: as Seán McGinley of a pro-refugee NGO in the south-western state of Baden Württemberg puts it,

“Whatever ‘we’ – and here I mean those who have taken a stand over the last years [ensuring] that refugees are being supported in diverse ways – have managed to accomplish, we have managed not together with (let alone because of) but rather in spite of  those who are politically responsible.”

In Germany, an integrationist paradigm continues to reign supreme in policy-making geared towards all those stylised as ‘immigrants’: integration remains the watchword of the hour. What Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! has revealed, however, are profound disagreements about the contours of that supposedly stable national We that newcomers ought to integrate into.

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  1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/30/angela-merkel-great-migrant-gamble-paid-off  

  2. https://en.qantara.de/content/2015-and-the-syrian-influx-five-years-on-how-has-germanys-refugee-policy-fared  

  3. https://verfassungsblog.de/der-rechtsbruch-mythos-und-wie-man-ihn-widerlegt/  

  4. https://en.qantara.de/content/2015-and-the-syrian-influx-five-years-on-how-has-germanys-refugee-policy-fared  

  5. https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2015/kw17_de_fluechtlinge_deutschland-369698  

  6. https://en.qantara.de/content/syrian-refugees-in-germany-five-years-on-samer-serawans-damascus-aroma-a-taste-of  

  7. https://prospect.org/power/myth-rags-riches/  

  8. https://mediendienst-integration.de/artikel/wie-geht-es-den-fluechtlingen-heute.html  

  9. https://mediendienst-integration.de/fileadmin/Expertise_Hestermann_Herkunft_von_Tatverdaechtigen_in_den_Medien.pdf  

  10. https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2020-05/diskriminierung-clan-kriminalitaet-razzien-polizei-rassismus/komplettansicht