Refugee Policy and Public Opinion

The year 2015 marked a turning point in German refugee policy, and seemingly, in the political career of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  With the now-infamous call of “Wir Schaffen Das,” Merkel opened Germany’s gates to a flood of refugees—and the result was a crisis, with huge numbers of destitute people suddenly crossing freely over German borders.  Today, Merkel’s refugee policies face significant public backlash.  Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), suffered serious defeats in the September 2016 election.  More importantly, the emerging right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained fourteen percent of the vote and entered the Berlin state parliament for the first time.[1]  According to Deutsche Welle, that number rose to 24 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, with a 61.1 percent voter turnout.[2]  Additionally, Chancellor Merkel faces her lowest approval rate in five years, at 45 percent.  This reflects a large surge in support for the AfD party, as well as a dip in Angela Merkel’s approval rating.  Last year, Merkel’s approval rating came in at 63 percent.[3]  Likewise, in a 2015 ARD “Sonntagsfrage” survey (a survey which asks voters for whom they would vote were the election the day of the survey), the AfD party polled at only four percent.[4]

Native fear of foreigners and prejudice

In Germany, there exists a narrative that incoming Syrian refugees have little education and hold values that are at odds with Western secular and humanist culture.  According to UNICEF, Syria’s youth enjoy a literacy rate of 96.4 percent among males and 94.1 among females.  That said, of course, most of them do not speak German.  Regarding culture, it is nearly impossible to quantify values.  Abdulrazzak Patel, an associate faculty member at Oxford University, argues that typical Western narratives of Arab humanism acknowledge a Golden Age and a subsequent, long decline after which Europe ushered in modernism—and that both Western and Arab scholars have uncritically adopted these narratives.  Essentially, disregard for the Middle Eastern humanist tradition roots itself in Western Eurocentrism.[5]

In addition, right-wing groups such as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) have protested Germany’s willingness to accept so many refugees.  Their protests have focused on religion and crime.  In late 2015, Chancellor Merkel affirmed that “Islam belongs in Germany.”[6]  PEGIDA argues the opposite.  A survey on PEGIDA’s official website asks the question, “Does Islam belong in Germany?”  1,091 of the 1,332 respondents answered “no.”[7]  The Twitter users behind the account @RefugeeCrimeMap also perpetuate the narrative of high immigrant criminality.  The account’s pinned tweet reads: “We have recently documented the ten thousandth ‘exceptional case [referring to crimes committed by immigrants or foreigners].’  All crimes are available for viewing on our website.”[8]

Veronika Ortega, an author and leader of the aid group Flüchlingshilfe Wald e.V., spoke about groups reacting against the influx of refugees in our interview.  She noted that PEGIDA is strongest in former East Germany, a de-Christianized, post-communist society: “The people who know very little of religion are the same ones that are hiding behind religion.”  “Europe is surrounded by a ‘ring of fire’,” Ortega said, referring to the political turmoil in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, “and we have a choice: to either see it as a threat, or to respond with humanism.  We have to respond with humanism.”  Ortega also emphasized the importance of visibility on the part of aid organizations: “Antagonism is not very visible [in Gunzenhausen] because we [aid organizations and people welcoming toward refugees] are visible.  Where less help exists, antagonism is higher.”[9]  Sabine*, however, held an opposing view.  “East Germans have valid concerns as citizens of Germany.  They had a very different life, and they are ignored when they speak.  As soon as anyone says no, oh, they are Nazis.”

In Germany, Nazism is a serious criminal offense.  Lutz Bachmann, the former head of PEGIDA, was found guilty of inciting hatred in a March 2016 case for allegedly describing refugees as “cattle” and “scum”. [10]  Since Bachmann’s resignation, the PEGIDA movement has reportedly splintered and weakened significantly.[11]

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Anti-AfD graffiti in Dresden (photo: Matthew Meyerhuber).


The Difficulties of Integration

Lack of integration courses: At present, there are not enough courses available for the refugees currently in Germany.

  1. The German language is very difficult: This is somewhat true even for native English speakers. The United States Department of State lists German as a Category II language for native English speakers, meaning that general professional proficiency requires approximately 750 hours of training.[12]  For adults who do not know Latin letters, the challenge is immense.  German language learners from Arab countries must take alphabet courses before even beginning to take language courses.  Additionally, German Amtsprache, or bureaucratese, is difficult even for German speakers.  In short, integration courses may provide refugees with enough German to survive, but are likely insufficient for enabling adult refugees to become fully independent in Germany.

Work and Education: In Germany, many professions are highly regulated.  Doctors and lawyers in particular must have very specific qualifications to practice in Germany; many skilled trades are subject to similar regulations.[13]  As a result, many refugees in Germany are no longer able to work within their previous professions.

With regard to education, public school is compulsory in Germany.  The educational system, however, is naturally biased toward native Germans and German speakers.  Germany’s system of sorting students into different schools by achievement also makes it especially difficult for foreign students to pursue their careers of choice.

[1]“Berlin State Poll: Losses for Merkel’s CDU, gains for AfD.” BBC, September 19, 2016.
[2] “German State Elections: Success for Right-Wing AfD, Losses for Merkel’s CDU.”  Deutsche Welle, March 13, 2016.
[3] ARD-DeutschlandTREND, ARD, September 2015, 16.
[4] Ibid., 19
[5] Abdulrazzak Patel, AHR Roundtable: “The Trajectory of Arab Islamic Humanism: the Dehumanization of a Tradition,” in The American Historical Review 120, no. 4 (October, 2015): 1343-1353.
[6]“Kanzlerin Merkel: ‘Der Islam Gehört zu Deutschland,’” Der Spiegel,, December 1, 2015.
[7] “Umfragen”, PEGIDA,
[8]“Kürzlich haben wir den 10.000. “Einzelfall” dokumentiert. Alle Verbrechen sind auf unserer Webseite einsehbar” Refugee Crime Map, tweet, September 28, 2016, 2:03 pm.
[9]Private interview, Veronika Ortega, July 29, 2016.
[10]Kate Brady, “PEGIDA Founder Lutz Bachmann Found Guilty of Inciting Hatred,” Deutsche Welle, March 5, 2016.
[11] Ben Knight, “PEGIDA Splintered as Conflicting Demos Staged in Dresden,” Deutsche Welle,, September 27, 2016.
[12] According to the Foreign Service Institute, German is a Category II foreign language for English speakers.
[13] “Recognition of Vocational Credentials in Germany”, Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs,