Fredrik von Erichsen / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images

U-turn on asylum seekers may spell Merkel’s downfall

Outcry over the New Year’s Eve assaults has empowered the far right and may reverse Germany’s generous refugee policy

January 13, 2016 2:00AM ET

The New Year’s Eve assaults and robberies in several German cities including Cologne, Hamburg and on a smaller scale in Stuttgart and Frankfurt have set off political tremors across Germany.

What exactly happened in Cologne and the other German cities is still far from clear. Police and federal authorities are investigating the incidents, which have prompted more than 600 criminal complaints. So far no one had been held accountable for the attacks, about 40 percent of which were of a sexual nature.

This has raised a lot of questions. How could such large numbers of men be organized and perpetrate similar crimes in several cities at once? Why is there so little video evidence of the incidents? Who was behind these seemingly coordinated attacks and for what purpose? Why did the Cologne and Hamburg police fail to handle the perpetrators?

Tragically, German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, are panicking amid emotionally charged reactions to reports that nearly all of the alleged suspects in the Cologne incident are “of foreign origin.” The issue has become a blessing in disguise for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the illiberal Pegida movement, both of which were written off as flashes in the pan less than six months ago. They are surging again, exploiting the fear and wild allegations.

For the first time since the refugee crisis began, Merkel has also joined the populist chorus. Her government has announced that it’s considering new measures allowing authorities to deport asylum seekers and political refugees convicted of the crimes. This U-turn might ultimately spell her downfall.

Indeed, the incident in front of Cologne’s gothic cathedral could well constitute a tipping point. For one, it would be a debacle for Merkel’s government if German politicians and the public turn against its hitherto courageous stand on the refugee situation. And the blame could be laid squarely at Merkel’s feet, the one person most responsible for Germany’s generous, far-sighted policy toward the millions of refugees fleeing war and repression.

Merkel has committed a fistful of blunders handling last year’s refugee crisis in which more than one million asylum-seekers looked to Germany as a safe haven. But until now she has steered clear of the kind of populism that other European leaders and even some in her conservative Christian Democrats party have stooped to.

Merkel had refused to budge to withering criticism from within her own ranks, insisting that Germany and all European Union members grant applicants the right to see political asylum and remain in the EU until their case is adjudicated. Merkel has characterized the acceptance of those fleeing war and persecution as a humanitarian responsibility, but the bottom line has always been a legal one: the right to seek asylum is enshrined in the German constitution, EU’s charter and the international law under the Geneva Conventions.

Germany is particularly sensitive to this issue. During World War II hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and other European fascists landed in concentration camps because many countries refused to accept them.  

By backtracking on her initial positions, Merkel has basically admitted that the critics were right all along.

Merkel grew up in communist East Germany (the German Democratic Republic), which did not recognize civil liberties and human rights. Perhaps that is why she sees the right to asylum as absolute and non-negotiable. For example, she refuses to set a limit on the number of asylees and opposes turning back refugees at the German border.

This unflagging position had won Merkel the respect of many on the political left. It would have taken Herculean effort from a leftist government to toe a similar line amid stiff opposition from conservatives and the far right. The pressure to backtrack would have been colossal. Yet, despite her reputation as a compromiser, Merkel took a principled stand and stuck to it — until now.

Merkel’s call for sending convicted asylum seekers back to their country of origin flies in the face of this bold stance. It also establishes two tiers of rights in Germany: one for asylum applicants and refugees, another for everybody else. Asylum applicants and political refugees must be held to the same legal standards as ordinary Germans. The penalties for pickpocketing, sexual assault and rape are set in German law. All suspects, who come before a German court, must be held to the same standard regardless of their residency status.

Merkel’s steady, dispassionate crisis management had kept the raucous debate from descending into hysterical populism. But now the gates are flung wide open. Even the weekend magazine of the venerable Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, a moderate voice in Germany, has joined in. Its cover was an illustration of a black hand reaching between a white woman’s legs. The image caused such an outcry among its readers forcing the publication’s editor-in-chief to apologize. The weekly Focus ran a cover photo of a young white woman with black handprints across her body.

The new turn of events underscores a disaster that was waiting to happen: Despite noble intentions, Germany is simply not prepared to handle so many traumatized, desperate people from foreign cultures. For one, it doesn’t have a proper immigration law, something conservatives have resisted for decades. This would have eased the burden by separating asylum applicants from those seeking entry for other reasons. Second, Germany does not command the professional human resources required to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of stranded people. There aren’t enough language teachers, interpreters, social workers, psychologists, doctors and nurses, judges and legal personnel, babysitters and security forces necessary for a million newcomers.  

This is why untrained volunteers have had to step in. But as selfless and inspiring as their efforts have been, these volunteers lacked the full rigors of a daunting job. Germany could handle a million refugees and asylum applicants a year. But it currently lacks the necessary preparation to do so. For years Merkel ignored warnings about an impending refugee crisis and chose to improvise her government’s response when it happened.

By playing directly into the hands of the rabble-rousers, Merkel and her allies now face a resurgent far-right. According to new opinion polls, AfD’s support has soared to 9 percent nationwide and 16 percent in the eastern states, from just two or three percent early last year. Rightist mobs feel empowered, too: In Cologne on Jan.10, several Pakistani men and one Syrian man were attacked and beaten by hooligans. The Pegida movement has jumped on the opportunity claiming that they had warned about the volume of Muslim migrants to Germany. In rallies in Munich, Leipzig and Cologne, they called for Merkel’s resignation.

By backtracking on her initial positions, Merkel has basically admitted that the critics were right all along. The Christian Democrats might make Merkel pay for the debacle if AfD scores well in the upcoming local elections in western Germany and the outcry over the events of New Year’s Eve do not subside. If she falls, Merkel will have only herself to blame. That however won’t be much consolation to persecuted peoples seeking asylum in Europe.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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