Berlin Christmas market attack: Germans readily accepted refugees, but what now?

One morning last May, I had gone to two institutes at Goettingen University. So, by the time I walked through the picturesque little town to the station, I was just able to leap onto the early afternoon train before it departed.

As I struggled with the ticket machine on board, a couple of young men sitting across the aisle looked on uneasily, slightly sheepish. Having got the ticket, I sat down beside them and got talking.

I had guessed right. They were from Iraq, and they were going to the refugee centre just a few kilometres outside Goettingen. It was one of the largest reception camps in Germany, and many arriving refugees had to stay there until they were interviewed and a decision made about where they could be sent - and whether relatives left behind could join them.

The camp turned out to be a set of buildings and pre-fab structures, generally white but occasionally painted inside in nice pastel shades or with birds or stars in spaces meant for children. The rooms were generally large, with spacious corridors outside. There were bags in some places, and the occasional pile of garbage too outside a pre-fab building.

Children of various ages, ranging to young adults, played various sorts of unsophisticated games, often involving kicking a ball or two. Young Germans flitted around, trying to sort things out, clean, and communicate to the extent possible when a refugee asked questions. Hardly any of the refugees knew German. Not everyone spoke English.

There were people from various countries — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Iritrea, Somalia. Several sat in a hall, waiting a turn to be interviewed. Some looked concerned.

Overall, though, they appeared calm and secure. Many had infants in their arms, or little children near them.

Easy acceptance

The most striking thing was how easily the adjacent community seemed to accept the overload of refugees. Local residents pointed the way to the camp quite happily.

 Berlin Christmas market attack: Germans readily accepted refugees, but what now?

File photo of German police. Reuters

A few days earlier, I had sat with a couple of German friends in Muenster, sipping a fizzy drink at a street-side table on the outskirts of Muenster’s historic old town. At one point, I was riveted by the sight of a very neatly turned out family passing down the street. They looked as if they were straight out of Levant - perhaps a relatively conservative section of Syria, for the women wore neat bright hijabs.

I seemed to be the only one who noticed the family. They had apparently been shopping, judging from the bags they carried. They evidently lived in the imposing building down that road, right next to the beautiful leafy park along the brook that runs through that part of Muenster. A superb location, the town had made it over as sort of family hostel for refugees.

In both places in Germany, Muenster in the west and Goettingen much farther east, local communities appeared to have accepted the visitors quite happily. This was about seven months ago, when more than a million refugees had already arrived in Germany.

Questions were certainly being asked, but they tended in most places to be about logistics and efficiency of Germany’s reception arrangements - as well as measures required to deal with crime - rather than resentment or hate.

There had also been a resentful reaction, mainly in areas of economic contraction and social distress. Those areas tended often to be in the former East Germany. So, there had been hate-filled demonstrations the previous winter by organisations such as Pegida. But there had been counter-demonstrations too in several cities to assert the rights of refugees.

Terror challenge

There can be no doubt that the horrific truck attack that killed 12 persons at a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin on Monday will increase the questioning and deepen the divide, politically within Germany, and beyond. US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted about it in specifically inter-religious terms quite soon after the attack.

The attack will severely weaken the hand of Germany’s gutsy Chancellor, Angela Merkel. She went out on a limb last year to open her country’s doors to more than a million unscreened migrants in the space of a few months. This one event could turn the tables on her enviable three-inning success story. Many Germans, particularly from her own conservative party, had reservations about her open-door policy.

By the time I visited those camps this summer, the door had already shut again. It had only remained open in the autumn and winter last year.

By spring this year, Merkel had made a covert deal with Turkish strongman Erdogan: refugees turning up in Greece from Syria were repatriated through Turkey this year, in exchange for a gradually unfolding Turkish wish-list. Meanwhile, Merkel got Macedonia to build a wall to block passage from the Greek peninsula to the rest of Europe.

Many German conservatives held that all that was too late — that the damage had already been done by letting so many refugees enter unchecked. A large number of Pakistanis and Afghans entered Europe last year along with the flow of Syrian refugees. There were some Eritrean and other refugees too.

A range of political opponents pointedly criticised her refugee policy in the wake of Monday’s Christmas market attack. The xenophobic Alternative for Germany was of course in full flow. But there were statements even from the Communist Die Linke. Several leaders of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union too are uneasy.

In a brief statement on Tuesday, a somber Ms. Merkel said: “I know it would be very difficult to accept if it were to be confirmed that a person who sought asylum and protection in Germany, committed this act. This would be especially appalling to all people who are working day in, day out to help the refugees and to all who really need our protection and make an effort to integrate.”
The inflow of refugees may have been limited to a few months, but it was huge. It has changed the country’s demography irreversibly. Germans by and large have done a great job of adjusting to the change, and welcoming their new neighbours. There can be no doubt, though, that the road ahead will not be easy.

Updated Date: Dec 21, 2016 12:41:52 IST