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If you haven’t noticed in the last few months, Germany has thrown itself into a major social transformation, sparked by the massive migration of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Northern Africa.  It was not an intentional revolution. In fact, it’s no secret that Germany has been struggling with a worrisome wave of violence against foreigners, refugee homes, and local politicians targeted by right-wing radical groups. Local police forces have proven to be ineffective or helpless to stop the violence. Yet in a historic mix of humanitarian response and inability to prevent the inevitability, Germany was transformed. To be clear, Germany was simply ill-prepared and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people pouring over its borders. Angela Merkel really had no other a choice. The possible images of Germany trying to stop refugees by force, combined with an unprepared border police force, and several thousand kilometers of unprotected borders meant that short-term efforts were bound to be ineffective. It would have made Germany look weak exacerbating the problem both domestically and internationally.

In the early days, most of Germany rallied. Supported by a chancellor whose mantra was and remains, “We’ll manage this”, the public’s response was impressively generous, herculean, and empathetic. People spontaneously took refugees in, volunteered, created welcome centers, and organized private donations.

But all is not well in the Berlin Republic with the conservative base up in arms over Merkel’s approach. How long she will remain chancellor is ultimately up to the public, whose mood has recently started to sour due to media reports of rape, gay bashing, clan turf wars and increasing crime in the refugee centers. Euphoria and humanitarian friendliness have given way to political debates over how this wave of refugees will change society. This week a law redefining asylum procedures was adopted with great majorities; but while the law included much-needed support, e.g. integration initiatives, financial support for local communities, and work permits for refugees, it also carried an underlying tone 1) demanding quick assimilation and 2) stemming the flow of refugees.

The new wave of refugees has deepened societal cleavages that were already there.PEGIDA (remember them: the Patriotic European against the Islamization of Western Europe”) has ramped up its weekly “kick out the foreigners” rally in Dresden. Their shadiest members are suspected of being involved in the burning of refugee centers and terrorizing foreigners; while their leaders pretend to be concerned citizens who are not xenophobic. They even wheel out retired seniors to make their group look less violent, but make no mistake their true intentions are undeniable: foreigners (e.g. especially Muslims) out. In a similar vein, theAlternative for Deutschland (AFD) has also been organizing rallies in Erfurt, leaving foreigners, including myself, feeling unwelcome and unsafe.

While the vast majority of Germans do not associate with radical groups, the general population has struggled for years with failed integration policies; and many wonder how they will personally be affected by the new arrivals. Refugees will need extra education, housing, work, religious centers and political representation that reflect their needs and interest. At the center of these needs lies the potential for value conflicts that may impact the wider society. Issues of personal liberty vs. religious freedom, family values vs. human rights and even segregation vs. interracial marriages, often frowned upon in certain minority communities, will be tested.

The fact is that the refugees are here, and they are not going home anytime soon. In fact, the borders remain somewhat porous and Fortress Europe is a fortress no more. There are potentially more people on the move. If the mood is to remain positive and supportive on all sides, the German government will have to rethink its entire approach to refugees and integration. It will need to move away from acting from a position of weakness, e.g. reactionary, benefit cutting, assimilation plans, to pro-active engagement.  The strategy should focus on empowering people in ways that strengthen their commitment to democracy and the only way to do this is to integrate the refugees in the planning, execution, and evaluation of measures that impact their lives. Some measures to consider include:

  • Encouraging self-mobilizing initiatives for refugee communities;
  • Funding local community dialogues to address fears and concerns;
  • Providing intercultural sensitivity training to host and beneficiary communities;
  • Securing comprehensive diversity management policies to ensure economic opportunities; and
  • Publishing transparent facts and figures that help local communities prepare bottom up initiatives.

At the center of this strategy will have to be a focus on youths and the deconstruction of prejudices, assumptions, and social biases. Youths on both sides will need the possibility to make new friends, networks, and social bonds that will strengthen integration. More importantly, we should not underestimate the need to deconstruct the role of violence, which has become deeply rooted in the human experience of refugees accustomed to fighting for what they need in order to survive. At the same time, specific measures are needed to deal with crimes against vulnerable people (single women, the LGTB community, & youths) in the refugee centers, such as:

  • Zero tolerance policies in refugee centers;
  • Increasing round the clock surveillance;
  • Creating safe spaces for vulnerable refugee;
  • Providing the option for women of choosing “women’s only” quarters;
  • Proving counseling for victims of crimes and violence; and
  • Robust action legal against lawbreakers.

Finally, For those who think Germany can go back to its debates over its so-called “Leitkultur”, I am very sorry to say, but Germany will need to do some serious joint soul searching to define its identity again. Business-as-usual will not cut it.  Merkel is right: if Germany is to succeed, it cannot isolate itself from the global community. At the risk of sounding cliche, John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.  It seems very appropriate for Germany right now.