Asylum Seekers in Germany

I can’t believe that within a few months of leaving my year-long stay in Germany, two things happened that are drastically reshaping the image of Germany.

The first is, unfortunately, the huge Volkswagen scandal that the company will probably overcome (though hopefully not to soon before I have the money to buy a VW Beetle). However, it may change the way people look at the German auto industry and the lable “made in Germany” loses some of its integrity.

The second shift in German/world relations is occurring with the mass migration of refugees from the Middle East, fleeing from the IS, war in Syria, or other life-threatening situations. This is causing the international spotlight to come on Germany in regards to social relations (outside of directly economic discussion) for the first time since the country was reunited in 1989.

If I could be there now, I would want to help the refugees learn German and get to know the German language and culture while learning from them. There’s a lot to learn on either side, but we should also remember to think about the things that make us similar before we dwell on those that make us different.

Since I was first introduced to the reader the writing program at my university uses, I was drawn to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s excerpts. Taken from the 2006 published Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, these excerpts make up the introduction and a chapter and explain Appiah’s concept and  envisioned practice of “cosmopolitanism.”

The word, as Appiah tells us, comes from the Greek words  πολίτης/polités and κόσμος/cosmos signifying “citizen” and “world.” Thus, a cosmopolitan is someone who is a citizen of the world. However, in a world that is perhaps even more globalized than it was in 2006, where people from all over the world travel to the middle east within months of the announcement of the so called Islamic State to join them with a speed that movements across borders has never been crossed before, the ideas behind this concept need to be broken down further. As Appiah writes:

“Only in the past couple of centuries, as every human community has gradually been drawn into a single web of trade and a global network of information, have we come to a point where each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion conspecifics and send[…] that person something worth having: a radio, an antibiotic, a good idea. Unfortunately, we could also send through negligence as easily as malice, things that will cause harm a virus, an airborne pollutant, a bad idea” ( 68).

Appiah envisions cosmopolitanism as a state of being in which one recognizes that one has “obligations to others […] that stretch beyond” ties of blood and citizenship (69). However, it is also that “we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (69).

Taken at face value, this looks very typical for movements for world peace. If only we could all just get along…

Beyond the obvious difficulty with “getting along” that needs both parties to step back (otherwise one is still on the offensive and a threat to the other), there’s a difficulty with what Appiah describes in particular. Perhaps that is why he calls it the “name not of the solution, but of the problem” (69).

“The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennial of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become” (68). Some will ask what the UN is supposed to do, if not be the institution that allows us to live together. That’s a good question.

I think the U.N., and similar organizations like the E.U. try to bring together many different groups with different relations to the timeline of humans and arrange the laws that will allow them to live and prosper (economically and intellectually) together. However, something Appiah opens my eyes to is the inherent difficulty in having an obligation to all human life, and trying to honor particular life. That is, while there is the idea of morality that all people share, supposedly, how can one pass laws that ask people to respect each other’s ethical codes?

In asking this question in particular, I am thinking of the current situation in Europe, particularly in Germany where asylum seekers are “welcomed” in a higher number than any other European country. Refugees bypass countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary to get to Germany.

Beyond the logistic problems with finding subsistence, medical care, and housing for 10,000 people in a day, there are also the social issues. I don’t want to talk about the massive wave of xenophobia that this influx of foreigners in a country incites, as it would in every country (see US), because in the German context this topic is always complicated by its well-documented history. However, I think it is important to note how Appiah’s idea of cosmopolitanism may help the Germans and the asylum seekers alike in handing the situation.

If groups of refugees are already persecuting other groups on religious or political grounds in the camps, how will they handle the differences they will find in the German public? If it is their goal to seek asylum in Germany and live there for two years or more, do they plan to live with blinkers on the entire time and ignore everything around them? Or do they plan to antagonize the people within the new community that they come in contact with? Do they plan to be allowed to follow their own code of law while ignoring the laws and institutions in the country that is providing them a refuge from the war and terrorism they are (often) literally walking away from?

German laws are designed for the citizens of Germany to allow them to live together based on their shared idea of what is moral. These ideas are, most definitely, based on the same ideas of equal human rights among people of any culture, race, religion, political views, and (they’re working on this) gender/sexuality. Much to the chagrin of many, they even try to uphold the rights of political groups that support the infamous ideas of the National Socialist party of the 1930s-1945. They DON’T uphold the principles, but they uphold the right in a democracy of freedom of expression (to a certain extent) and having all voices represented in a political situation. What I’m trying to say here, is that the Germans are going to try and respect and tolerate the beliefs and practices of the people within Germany, as long as each person respects the beliefs and practices of the other person/people. This needs to be exhibited by everyone.

There should not be instances in the temporary housing of a refugee persecuting another refugee because of his or her religion, ethnicity, or decision to travel alone (as a woman). If it happens in the camps, what can we expect when permanent more housing is found?

As in most situations, it is the single person, or few people who attract negative attention. The majority of the Germans still welcome refugees. The majority of the refugees are seeking to integrate peacefully and willing to make the necessary paradigm shift of what is accepted, while they plan (and have the right) to retain their values. This is what I think Appiah means in his idea of the practice of cosmopolitanism.

I’m curiously following international and German news to see how this continues.

Now would be a great time to write a PhD dissertation on contemporary Middle-Eastern writers in Germany (a suggestion for myself as I continue to bridge the gap in my education).

Source referred to: Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Making Conversation” and “Primacy of Practice.” from Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers. Barclay Barrios, ed. 2nd. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 67-83. Print.